The earliest Jewish American writers to produce widely recognized fictional narratives were journalists who also wrote for the popular stage, such as the early nineteenth century melodramatists Mordecai Manuel Noah and Samuel B. H. Judah. An editor of the National Advocate and the founder of the New York Inquirer, Noah avoided including Jews in his most popular melodrama, Siege of Tripoli (1820), as did Judah in his most popular work, A Tale of Lexington: A National Comedy, Founded on the Opening of the Revolution in Three Acts (1823). As such, there is nothing identifiably Jewish American about their writing.
The first Jewish American writers to speak from a decidedly Jewish perspective were women poets. Taking the ancient Jew as its subject matter, Fancy’s Sketch Book, published in 1833 by Penina Moise, was one of the few such collections to reach a large audience in its day. However, Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus (1883) is by far the more familiar now, if for no other reason than that one of its passages, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses,” became the Statue of Liberty’s invitation—and by extension, America’s as well—to the disenfranchised of the world.
Lazarus’s enthusiasm for America as a “melting pot” was shared by a number of early Jewish American novelists, Israel Zangwill to name but one. In The Melting-Pot, the 1908 drama that coined the phrase, Zangwill envisions a land where Jew and Gentile can live and labor in harmony, if only they are willing to become, first and foremost, “Americans.” There she lies, the great Melting Pot—Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling?There gapes her mouth—the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freightCelt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow—Yes, East and West, North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging...
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