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Only in America

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.1

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 Fathers and Sons. The East Side became an unruly haven of idealisms jostling against one another. This loftiness contrasted starkly with the abysmal conditions of their everyday existence, urban horrors which recall Dickens or Zola, and beneath which many a poor nameless immigrant sank. Therein lay the challenge, the pathos, the tragic flaw of the “world of our fathers”—in this contradiction between high principle and low reality. The experience in America was a moral schooling, an extended bruising lesson in the means and costs of self-betterment. The moral grandeur of many immigrants never came undone, but their children did not quite inherit it. In the tenement contests between the rats and the dreams, neither emerged victorious.

Howe goes into great detail about the trials of the immigrant Jews in New York—the grueling abuses of the sweatshops, the shabby and stinking tenements, the mutilations of family life, the Yiddish demimonde of the East Side (where whores were named Katz and Cohen and hoods called Little Kishky), the spiritual desiccation and religious disillusionment.2 Faced with America’s insatiable individualism, the old communal bonds suffered irreparable damage.3 In such a world of anomic darkness, the community threatened on all sides by breakdown and dispersion, dazed Jews sorely needed an explanation and a plan of action—in a word, an ideology. On the East Side that was not hard to come by.

The Orthodox, those perennial experts at producing reasons, counseled faith and patience.4 Zionists promoted their own analysis of the Jewish problem, but on the East Side without much success. Their failure to take hold among the immigrants indicates that an attitude fundamental to their received world view, the distinction between the Diaspora and an ideal Jewish autonomy, was being undermined. Zionism was dismissed because most had concluded that they no longer had to expect displacement, that their problem must be solved in America. The Jews trusted America—“our Zion,” one rashly called it—and dared to hope that for them happiness was at last a workable proposition.5 This hope engendered an ostensibly un-Jewish reluctance to defer their happiness any longer, or in the name of some vast historical plan which only discloses itself to victims. And this reluctance proved decisive for the fate of the Jewish community for many years to come. It became the Achilles heel of Jewish socialism, and the ruin of many parents’ dreams.

Large numbers of this immigrant proletariat turned above all to socialism. Gradually they realized that effective and large-scale relief would come only by the fierce efforts of a combative working class alive to its own interests. “The 70,000 zeroes became 70,000 fighters,” said the Yiddish poet Liessen after the dramatic strikes of 1909, the anno mirabilis of Jewish socialism in America.

Of course Judaism had much in common with socialism, notably that prophetic messianism which, we are forever reminded, survives in Marx. More important, the socialism of the East Side was deeply colored by the idioms and imagery of its Jewish rank-and-file—one cleaners’ union on Henry Street ended its meetings with dancing to Hasidic tunes; Abraham Cahan, “Der Proletarisher Magid” (the proletarian preacher), heaped “elaborate Vilna curses” upon the wealthy, including uptown German Jews. This was a working class drenched in Jewish tradition—“if a rabbi dies even the heretics weep”—and no socialism at war with that tradition could ever win their loyalties. The anarchists who combined exalted revolutionary fervor with ferocious attacks on religion—such as giving balls on Yom Kippur—were bound to fail.

Irving Howe’s engagement with his subject is nowhere more intense than in his treatment of Jewish socialism, which he sees as “primarily a political movement dedicated to building a new society; part of a great international upsurge that began in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth.” This is certainly true of its inception and early history; it is also what Howe, the editor of Dissent, and himself a socialist distressed by the demise of this tradition among his fellow Jews, would wish them to see. But as a description of socialism’s career in the American Jewish community it misses its mark.

Much more urgent for the Jewish unions than a revolutionary new society was relief in the society they knew. They later took enthusiastically to the New Deal because it reflected their style of social action, in which effectiveness took precedence over ideology. Led by shrewd organizers such as David Dubinsky, men better equipped for the subtleties of the bargaining table than the finer points of Plekhanov, they were not averse to being absorbed into the political process if that would aid in ameliorating the conditions of workers’ lives. In this respect they differed enormously from so much of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century socialism, and seem closer in spirit to some of the leftist opposition parties in Europe today.

The most fascinating characteristic of the immigrant Jewish workers,” writes Howe, “[was] that many of them should be simultaneously inflamed with revolutionary ideas and driven by hopes for personal success and middle-class status.” But the two were incompatible, and the less elevated aims triumphed. The Jewish workers adjusted their vision to more tangible ends; these finally attained, they abandoned their revolutionary attitudes. Historians of the movement such as Daniel Bell and Will Herberg conclude that Jewish socialism was primarily a process of integration into American life, and they are right. As Howe himself ruefully notes:

Jewish socialism gradually transformed itself from a politics into a sentiment—a sentiment tended with affection and respect but no longer from the premise that the will or heroism of an immigrant generation could change the world.

The contradiction between vision and ambition which divided socialism against itself was played out in many households, where the fathers dreamed of a better and more just world, but were equally fervent in their wishes to improve the lot of their children. They wanted their sons to carry on the traditions of Jewishness, but they also wanted them to become at ease in America. They could not have it both ways. For the sons to get on in America they would have to enter precincts of consciousness and experience far beyond the culture of their childhood, whose social idealism and religious devotion were irreconcilable with their own careers. These immigrant parents thundered, they regretted, they looked away—but they saw their sons through law and medical schools and into affluent America.6 “In behalf of its sons,” Howe concludes, “the East Side was prepared to commit suicide; perhaps it did.”

Accustomed as we are to hearing about the essential affinity between Jewish ethics and revolutionary ideals, it might seem surprising, and a failure of moral will, that the Jewish socialists of America turned away from the struggle for an altered world. But their response also has its roots in the Jewish tradition, roots which perhaps run deeper than those the radicals acknowledge. The Torah commands the Jew to aid the poor, the widow, and the orphan as he encounters them—not to postpone his aid until the ideologically correct moment beckons. As against the patience with which the Jew must await the Messiah, there is the indignation that he must feel at each meeting with suffering, an indignation that only immediate charity and assistance can mollify. But when in 1926 rebellious communists in the garment center behaved in utter disregard of the misery they were raining upon the workers in their bid for power, the Jewish unions summarily banished them. Misery caused in the name of misery’s end is just more misery. The intelligent Hayim Greenberg spoke for this humane Jewish skepticism in his essay on Trotsky:

If Trotsky and Stalin are typical of revolutionary salvationists, if those who undertake to redeem humanity bear within themselves such volcanoes of hate, brutality, and criminality…then social redemption is a curse. Perhaps we should no longer laugh at the Jewish village woman who, when her husband told her that the Messiah was about to come in a few days, exclaimed that the God who had saved us from Pharaoh and Haman…would have mercy and save us from the Messiah’s hands.

  1. 1

    Howe’s book is also a welcome addition to the meager number of studies of the subject available in English. Moses Rischin’s The Promised City: New York’s Jews. 1870-1914 (Harvard University Press) is an excellent and meticulous book, and Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902; Schocken) is as exhilarating as ever. A superb general study of American Jewry is, of course, Nathan Glazer’s American Judaism. On the Jewish world of Eastern Europe which the immigrants left behind, there is Lucy Dawidowicz’s unrivaled anthology The Golden Tradition (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967).

  2. 2

    Howe is particularly good on the plight of the Jewish woman—contrary to one reviewer who seemed interested in nothing else—and his discussion of the Jewish mother is a passage of almost sublime decency. On the religious disillusionment: in 1893 one Rabbi Hayim Vidrowitz arrived in New York from Moscow and proceeded to hang a sign out his window which read “Chief Rabbi of America”; when asked by whose authority, he replied: “The sign painter.” Such cynicism was no comfort to the beleaguered immigrants, and contributed to the emergence of that unattractive creature, the American rabbi.

  3. 3

    The best account I know of the effects of American freedom upon Jewish identity is Harold Rosenberg’s magnificent essay “Jewish Identity in an Open Society,” included in his Discovering the Present (University of Chicago Press, 1973).

  4. 4

    Howe’s somewhat perfunctory portrait of immigrant Orthodoxy needs some filling in. The Jews who came to America were, as the sociologist Charles Liebman observed, more secularized than many historians have realized, and their Orthodoxy more of a cultural defense than a religious movement. For many of the great Orthodox rabbis of Eastern Europe America was treif, and they discouraged the pious from immigrating. Those who came were often the least traditional, or worse; Jewish education and other religious essentials were conspicuously neglected upon arrival. It was not until the 1940s that the dominant figures of Eastern European Orthodoxy came to the United States—as did thousands of Orthodox refugees from Hitler’s Europe—and it was then and in the years following that Orthodoxy grew into a formidable religious movement.

  5. 5

    The Zionist leader Shmarya Levin once told Lewis Namier: “Before 1914 a couple of million Jews went to America, a mighty stream; but each of them thought only about himself or his family. A few thousand went to Palestine, a mere trickle; but everyone of them was thinking about the future of our nation.” See the useful discussion in American Jews and the Zionist Idea by Naomi W. Cohen (Ktav, 1975).

  6. 6

    The commonly held misconception that in America Jews rose meteorically and straight to the top should be put to rest. Pace General Brown, Jews never made it to the centers of economic power in the United States, and, as Jerold Auerbach’s recent book Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1975) shows, their careers in the law profession, for instance, were for many years hindered by an institutionalized anti-Semitism.

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