Yiddish-speaking Jews put faith in the language of their new country and left an indelible mark on American letters.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, published by W.W. Norton & Company.
When Henry James objected to the changes that the myriad Jewish immigrants were making to the English language, he would not yet have been able to read the fiction of Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, and Anzia Yezierska, immigrants whose primary language was Yiddish but who chose to write in English. Although these three are often thought of as the originators of Jewish American literature, in fact in their time they were transitional figures, lifting one foot out of their native Yiddish‑speaking immigrant culture while, with the other, stepping toward the English‑speaking American culture they aspired to.
Abraham Cahan stood firmly within the Yiddish world as a journalist and editor of the Forverts [the Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper based in New York]. Yet, having learned English in night school, he began publishing in English within a year of his arrival in America. When he resigned temporarily from the Forverts after helping to found it, Cahan worked as a journalist in English between 1897 and 1902 with the American journalists Hutchins Hapgood and Lincoln Steffens. At this time, he was befriended by the powerful American novelist William Dean Howells, who encouraged him to write his short stories, novellas, and novels in English to reach a mainstream American readership.
The paradox at the center of Cahan’s writings pulled him simultaneously toward both Yiddish and English as he Americanized those who read his Yiddish newspaper and taught Americans about the cultural, social, and psychological forces driving the Jewish immigrants through their painful transformation. In fact, one might speculate that Cahan wrote his ironic American success story The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) in part to counteract the unmitigated optimism of Mary Antin’s 1912 best‑selling autobiography. The Promised Land, in portraying the metamorphosed immigrant girl as the perfect product of an American education, affirmed for its Gentile American readers the absolute goodness of their nation. The third of our immigrant writers in English, Anzia Yezierska, cultivated a high English prose style that was modeled on 19th‑century British poetry; but she was rewarded for using the Yiddish-accented dialect of English that her 1920s Gentile American audience expected of her. It is fascinating that neither Antin nor Yezierska shows any awareness of the Yiddish literary culture that drew other writers of their generation.
Would James have been so scornful of Horace M. Kallen, a student of his brother, William? Because Kallen, a philosopher of ethnicity, arrived in America as a young boy of five from Silesia, in Prussia, where his family probably spoke German rather than Yiddish, it is not surprising that he wrote in English from the start. In fact, Kallen received an American education better than anything that even Antin could have imagined, for he earned a B.A. and a Ph.D. at Harvard and studied abroad at the Sorbonne and at Oxford.
And what would James have said about the American‑born Jewish novelists Sidney Nyburg and Edna Ferber? Both Nyburg and Ferber wrote fiction in English because they were removed geographically and culturally from the Yiddish world of the new immigrants. Nyburg came from a German Jewish family well established in Baltimore for decades, and Ferber, of German and Hungarian Jewish background, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and grew up in Midwestern towns. Thoroughly Americanized, Nyburg, a corporate lawyer who published five novels, and Ferber, a Pulitzer prizewinning, bestselling novelist and playwright who was counted among the inner circle of the New York literary scene, wrote for the American public, not for a specifically Jewish audience.
Nyburg’s The Chosen People and Ferber’s Fanny Herself, each author’s only work on expressly Jewish themes were published in 1917, the same year as Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky. Although probably a coincidence, the confluence of these three English novels about being Jewish in America or about becoming American as a Jew deserves consideration. Why? Because these writers had nothing to do with each other, and, despite their similar themes, these works have no connection—in contrast to the works of the Yiddish poets and other fiction writers of the time. The point is that in English, as of 1917, there is no movement or perceived lineage of Jewish American literature, while in Yiddish, at that very moment, there existed a coherent, divisive, and ever‑evolving culture and literature. During this period, there were, of course, Jewish journals being published in English such as the Menorah, a B’nai B’rith publication edited by the Sephardic American Benjamin Franklin Peixotto and the Menorah Journal, a literary and arts journal edited by the college‑educated sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. However, the great writing of this period is mostly in Yiddish.
Another American Gentile visited Lower East Side literary cafes around the same time as Henry James. Boston Brahmin journalist Hutchins Hapgood was escorted by Abraham Cahan through the Jewish quarter in 1901. Hapgood, recording his impressions in The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902), describes the cafes on cast Canal Street as places “where excellent coffee and tea are sold, where everything is clean and good, and where the conversation is of the best…[among] the chosen crowd of intellectuals.” And “the somber and earnest qualities of the race, emphasized by the special conditions, receive here expression in the mouths of actors, socialists, musicians, journalists, and poets. Here they get together and talk by the hour, over their coffee and cake, about politics and society, poetry and ethics, literature and life.” Hapgood characterizes four of the poets he met there as “men of great talent,” and writes with admiration about Eliakim Zunser, the wedding bard, or badkhen, famous as a Yiddish folk poet in Russia and New York; of the elite, refined Hebrew‑revivalist poet Menahem Dolitzki; of Morris Rosenfeld, the Yiddish Labor poet famous to Hapgood’s English‑language readers through Leo Weiner’s 1898 translation of his poems into English; and of a young poet, Abraham Liessin, a radical “Jewish bohemian,” contemporary of Yehoash (Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarden), who wrote verse essays on ethics and Jewish nationalism. Whereas James saw only the congestion of people and heard their voices as clamor, Hapgood observed the individuals within the crowd and, with the help of Cahan as his interpreter, spoke with and listened to many people, seeking out the scholars, the artists, and especially the writers. With such a positive, curious attitude, Hapgood discerned the immigrant culture as a part of the American whole and one that would enrich the American scene.