Page 31 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 33

Basic HTML Version

organic union of Yiddish literature with its new environment.”2
This “organic union,” this distinctiveness of American Yiddish
literature, asserts itself in the very first Yiddish writing in
America from the beginning of the large-scale Jewish immigra­
tion following the anti-Semitic Czarist May Laws of 1881 to the
turn of the century. Those years represent a more or less unified
period in American Yiddish literature in which immigration
and the immigrant experience are the dominant motifs. The
American dream had first impressed itself on the Jewish con­
sciousness a good half-century before—the dream of “a Utopia
or better still a land of fable,” in Isaac Meyer Dick’s phrase.3
A. B. Gotlober noted that, before the nineteenth century hardly
a Jew had known “that there was any such place as America.”4
But the various Yiddish versions of J. H. Campe’s
von America
found a quick popularity among the Jewish mil­
lions suffering under Nicholas I, the Barracks Master, who had
inherited them from Catherine following the partitions of
Poland. The dream of the Golden Land and the Lady with the
Lamp glowed day and night.
The actual experience of America, however, brought the hun­
dreds of thousands of new immigrants face to face with the grim
reality behind the golden dream. The era which has come to be
symbolized by the sweatshop was characterized not only by the
economic exploitation of the new immigrant. It attacked him in
every aspect of his being. It struck at his sense of personal worth
and dignity; it thrust upon him values that made a mockery of
those in which he had been reared, and it created a generation
chasm between “greenhorn” parents and native children. Fresh
from a shtetl culture that was stable, integral, supportive, and
committed to mutual responsibility, the immigrant found him­
self plunged into an urban, highly mobile, competitive, indiffer­
ent world in which he was merely an easily dispensible hand.
Fierce protests against this world run through the works of the
proletarian poets who were the major poetic voices between 1880
and 1900—Joseph Bovshover, David Edelshtat, Morris Rosenfeld,
2 Joseph Opatoshu, “Fifty Years of Yiddish Literature in the United States,”
YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science,
vol. IX, New York, YIVO, 1954,
p. 77.
3 Shmuel Niger, “America in the Works of Isaac Meyer Dick,”
YIVO Annual
of Jewish Social Science,
vol. IX, New York, YIVO, 1954, p. 64.
p. 63.