Page 38 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 38

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. . . As fo r his person, it would have been base flattery to call
it dirty. I t was unspeakable. I could not help fe e lin g that by
its presence it soiled the atmosphere o f the room .33
T h e re were novelists and journalists in late nineteenth-century
Am erica who presented a quite d if fe ren t picture o f the east
European imm igrant Jew. Edward K in g ’s
J oseph Zalmoneh
roman a clef
, based on the early career o f Joseph Barondess, the
labor leader, is a warm sympathetic portraya l o f Jewish life on the
lower East Side. T h e Jews in two earlier K in g novels are classic
stereotypes: nihilists in his
The Gentle Savage
(1883), and a swindl­
ing usurer in his
Golden Spike
(1885). But life as a re fo rm e r in the
labor movement brought K ing into contact with the Jewish labor
movement in N ew York , and he came to appreciate the virtues o f
selflessness, high idealism and willingness to sacrifice he found
there. T h e villain o f
Joseph Zalmoneh
is a self-serving Socialist
agitator; the hero is all virtue, laboring with utter devo tion fo r his
oppressed and exp lo ited brethren. I t is a novel marred by m e lo­
drama, but illum ined by a deep understanding o f the p ligh t o f the
recently arrived Russian Jew. T h e viciousness o f its villain, R u d o l f
Baumeister, is exaggerated as are the virtues o f its hero, Joseph
Zalmonah, and his friends and co-workers. But it is the first
novel-length portrayal o f the east European imm igrant Jew that is
sympathetic, and it presented a new picture o f that portion o f
“ new Am erica” which so fascinated the reader at the end o f the
nineteenth century.
A more realistic portrayal o f the personal problems and ten­
sions in the life o f the imm igrant is found in Abraham Cahan ’s
Yekl: A Tale o f the New York Ghetto
(1896). T h e language is stilted,
but the story o f the all-too rapid acculturation o f Yek l to Jake, and
the retention o f old world ways by his w ife, Gitl, makes fo r
plausible dramatic conflict. T h e con flict goes far beyond that o f
husband and w ife to one between old -world values too quickly
discarded and new-world ways too readily adopted. Jake divorces
Gitl, whom he had married in Europe and brought to Am erica ,
and at the end o f the novel is on his way to City Ha ll to marry
33 Sidney Luska,y4
Latin Courtship . .
. N .Y . 1889, p. 191. For Henry H arland see:
Karl Beckson,
Henry Harland, His L ife and Work,
London, 1978.