Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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dream of entering City College — or, as he calls it, the Temple of
Learning — is a study in ever-thinner rationalizations. Like the
assorted women he can “engage”but never marry, Levinsky sees
everything about himself but the Truth.
Cahan, to be sure, knows better, and he offers up Levinsky
both as a documentary study and a cautionary tale. The same
Levinsky who made a fortune in the garment industry, who fig­
uratively as well as literally “clothed” America, finds himself un ­
comfortable in anything but plain, brown garb and out of place in
fancier restaurants. Long before the word “alienation” became a
fashionable index for urban neurosis, Levinsky suffered its
pangs, felt the heavy burdens of its guilt.
No figure on New York’s lower East Side understood the hu­
man complexities of assimilation better than Abraham Cahan. As
the editor of the influential
Jewish Daily Forward,
as the compas­
sionate voice of its famous “advice” column, the “bintel brief,” as
an eloquent spokesman for Jewish socialism, Cahan gave a mea­
sure of direction and cohesiveness to the disparate, often
competing, passions we associate with Yiddish culture. But
— whether it announce itself as night school classes in Eng­
lish at the Educational Alliance Building or as the City College
that Levinsky simultaneously reveres and puts off — would ulti­
mately fracture and disperse that very culture. This Cahan also
knew as his Yiddish newspaper introduced the immigrant Jews to
the best that the wider, secular world thought and said.
The Rise of David Levinsky
uses education as a way to measure
the long arc of Levinsky’s career and, in different ways, as a mea­
sure of Cahan’s own success as an “American” writer. Despite its
stilted diction, no less a figure than the influential William Dean
Howells praised Cahan’s work (prefering it to Stephen Crane’s
The red badge of courage),
and praise mattered.
In Henry Roth’s
Call it sleep
(1934), the other consensus classic
of immigrant Jewish life, education — like nearly everything that
the young David Schearl encounters in New York City — wears a
terrifying face:
He appeared old and was certainly untidy. He wore soft
leather shoes like house-slippers, that had no place for ei­
ther laces or buttons. His trousers were baggy and stained, a
great area of striped and crumpled shirt intervened be­
tween his belt and his bulging vest. The knot of his tie,