Jews Without Money

by Irwin Granich
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

The novel is a coming-of-age story set in early 20th-century New York City. Mike, the protagonist, lives with his family on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents, like most adults in the neighborhood, are Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, while most of the children are US-born. The family’s expenses are more than the parents can earn, so when he is twelve years old, Mike leaves school to work full time. Amidst many hardships that the family endures, the death of his younger sister, Esther, stands out as a tragedy that affects the family deeply.

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Mike’s mother and father are both present in the home, but his father has become disabled, so they rely primarily on his mother’s earnings. Herman, Mike's father, had been earning fairly well as a housepainter, but an injury from a fall and lead poisoning from the paint left him unable to work. Although he tries to do odd jobs, such as selling fruit, more often he stays home. Katie, Mike's mother, works in a cafeteria and tries to be a full-time mother in the remaining hours.

Esther’s death occurs in the winter when she is out on the street scrounging for wood scraps for their fire. A commercial truck strikes and kills her. The family’s pain is compounded by an attorney who wants them to hire him to sue the company, a proposition that nauseates the parents. Katie’s grief renders her unable to work. At one point they consider accepting aid from a charity organization, but they opt against it when its representative pries too much into their personal affairs. Mike learns to be skeptical of handouts and is determined to earn money as soon as he can.

Mike’s school days are not only of limited value educationally, but he endures teachers’ anti-Semitic insults and corporeal punishment. He also must learn U.S. history and culture and translate it for his parents, such as the story of the first Thanksgiving. His parents conclude the feast was not for Jews because the turkey is not kosher. As Mike learns about Judaism, he wonders about the concept of the Messiah and deliverance, conflating it with vengeance.

Mike’s initial employment efforts teach him more about anti-Semitism in employment, and he learns that even Jews may not hire Jews. Mike’s ideas about deliverance, influenced by many vocal socialists around him, begin to veer toward revolutionary social movements and away from religion.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

Jews Without Money is based on its author’s own childhood. It re-creates the Jewish immigrant Lower East Side in Manhattan in which he lived, and it provides insight into the life of first-and second-generation Jewish Americans around the turn of the twentieth century.

As the central character and narrator, Mike grows; he learns more and more about the struggles that his parents and their neighbors undergo to earn a living. Mike’s father had been a housepainter, but he is disabled by a fall and by lead poisoning. At one point in the book, Mike finds him trying to earn money selling half-rotten bananas. Mike’s mother is the central figure in the family; she supports them by working in a cafeteria. After and before work, she takes care of her husband and children. On a terribly snowy winter day, Mike’s younger sister, Esther, goes out into the streets to collect wood for the stove; she is run over by a truck and dies. A lawyer comes to their home and says that if the mother and father will sign a paper, he will get them a thousand dollars from Adams Express, the company that operated the truck, as damages. Herman wants to sign the lawyer’s paper, but Katie throws him out of the house. It is, she says, “blood money.”

Repeatedly, Mike learns how terrible life is for people in America without money, especially Jews. They need to cope not only with poverty but also with anti-Semitism. Because six-year-old Mike uses a dirty word, his teacher washes out his mouth with soap. The teacher also calls him “Little Kike.” Herman and Katie are furious because the soap the teacher uses is not kosher. When a politician sends them a Thanksgiving meal, Katie asks Mike to tell her the story of Thanksgiving. After he narrates the tale of the Pilgrims, his mother decides that Thanksgiving is “an American holiday . . . and not for Jews.” The family cannot even eat the beautiful, fat turkey because it is not kosher. When Herman seems to be doing well in the housepainting business and thinks he will begin to earn more money, he falls from a ladder and cannot work. After Esther dies, the mother also is unable to work. When the family is nearly starving, a man from the United Charities visits them and asks all kinds of personal questions, including whether Herman beats Katie. Herman throws the man out of the house. Mike concludes that “starvation was kinder” than organized charity.

Mike keeps hearing from those around him that the Messiah will come and lead the Jews to the Promised Land. He asks his neighbor, Reb Samuel, a very religious man, about the Messiah. Reb Samuel, who teaches Mike about Judaism, describes a “pale, young and peaceful” Messiah, but Mike prefers one who looks like Buffalo Bill and “could annihilate our enemies.”

At age twelve, Mike quits school to go to work. He finds a variety of unpleasant, sometimes hellish jobs and discovers anti-Semitism in employment. Even some businesses owned by Jews, he discovers, refuse to hire Jews. One night, he hears a man on a soapbox declare that a world movement is coming to end poverty. Listening to him, Mike learns about the workers’ revolution, which he calls “the true Messiah.” The revolution, he says, forced him to think, struggle, and live. The book then ends with the words, “O great Beginning!”

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