The book that started it all

David Herman on the first great American Jewish novel


The year just passed was once again marked by a rich outcrop of fiction from Jewish American writers and 2018 will doubtless be the same. We have come to expect it. This is a tradition that began a century ago. In fact, 2017 was the centenary of the first great Jewish American novel, The Rise of David Levinsky - Abraham Cahan, one of those larger-than-life Jewish immigrants who transformed American culture in the early 20th century.

Cahan was born in the Russian Pale in 1860. His grandfather was a rabbi. His father taught Hebrew and Talmud. In 1882, he came to America and spent the rest of his life in New York. A prolific journalist, he edited the Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers’ News) and founded the Jewish Daily Forward in 1887, which he ran for more than 50 years. In 1896, he published his first short story, followed a year later by his first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, the basis for the film, Hester Street.

The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) was his masterpiece, the rags-to-riches story of a Jewish immigrant. Malcolm Bradbury called it “a fable of economic success and moral catastrophe”. It tells the story of Levinsky, who leaves his shtetl with four cents in his pocket, and shaves off his beard and sidelocks, reinventing himself as an American.

He starts out in the garment district, working 16-hour days, and ends up as a rich businessman. Despite his wealth, he remains unsatisfied spiritually

The timing was perfect. It came out in the same year as Chaplin’s The Immigrant. The immigrants of the 1880s and ’90s were beginning to find their voice, moving from Yiddish to American English, with one foot in the old world and one in the new. The themes of immigration and Americanisation spoke to a whole generation.

Above all, there was a new, literary energy. You can see the change in Cahan’s writing from the sentimentality of his early stories to David Levinsky, more than 20 years later. A Ghetto Wedding ends: “An old tree whispered overhead its tender felicitations”. There are no “tender felicitations” in Cahan’s later novel, but tough guys and hookers. In a scene in a Catskills resort, nouveau riche New York Jews are drowning out the band. The conductor tries American popular songs, show tunes, even selections from Aida — all to no avail. Finally, he strikes up The Star-Spangled Banner. The effect is electric.

“The few hundred diners rose like one man, applauding,” Levinsky says. “Love for America blazed up in my soul. I shouted to the musicians, ‘My Country,’ and the cry spread like wildfire. The musicians obeyed and we all sang the anthem from the bottom of our souls.”

The impact on American fiction of this, Cahan’s last novel, can still be felt 100 years later.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

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