How did poverty affect the characters of Jews Without Money?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Poverty plays a large role in affecting the characters in Jews Without Money.  Poverty is what helps to define their struggle in America.  Gold's work about Jewish immigrants is largely seen in the context of the struggle to establish a life worth living in America.  This struggle is cultural, but it is also economic.  Honest, hard working Jewish people are shown to have to “eat the bread of sorrow and shame in America.”  This meal is the result of poverty.  It is poverty that denies them rights in America.  This impoverished condition is what compels Esther to have to go out to get wood, only to be run over by a truck.  Poverty is the reason that external charity organizations ask probing questions to Herman and Katie, compelling Mike to say "starvation was kinder” than organized charity.  Poverty is the reason teachers denigrate Mike by calling him a "little Kike." The book asserts that racial discrimination is easier to perpetrate upon those who are impoverished. Poverty impacts the lives of the characters in Jews Without Money.  Being poor is the reason their lives are manipulated by those who have money and power because of wealth.  

The emphasis on the proletariat's life is a part of the reason poverty affects the characters in the novel.  The drive for a messiah is more economic than anything else, as Gold's eyes affirm the idea that the messiah arises to restore economic balance to the world:

     O workers’ Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely, suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.
     O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live.
     O great Beginning!

The religious overtones are challenged by the need to economically restore people who live in America.  The "garden for the human spirit" is more economic than anything else, seeking to eliminate the weeds of poverty which choke the life out of people.  It is poverty that impacts the lives of the characters and reduces their dignity.  This can be seen in ideas such as “There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs" and seeing America as a "thief" for what it does to poor people.  In these contexts, poverty affects the characters in Jews Without Money in a significant manner.

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