The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The characters in Jews Without Money contribute to the growth of Mike. He runs wild in the slums of the Lower East Side, playing with his “Gang of Little Yids.” He describes the bums, horse drivers, prostitutes, and workers who live in his neighborhood. His father becomes a figure of despair. For Herman, nothing goes right. All of his get-rich-quick schemes go awry. Cruelly conscious of the need for money in America, he bitterly rejects the New World in which he suffers so much, at one point uttering, “A curse on Columbus! A curse on America, the thief!”

The most admirable character in the book is Katie. Many critics see the book as being primarily in praise of Gold’s own mother, on whom Katie is based. Several years after the book appeared, Gold himself called Katie the book’s heroine. She shows kindness to all, even the prostitutes who live near their apartment. When she works in the cafeteria, the other workers come to her with their problems. She remains gentle and concerned with doing the right thing, even though life for her is a constant round of work. The one time Mike sees her truly happy is when the family goes to Bronx Park and Katie takes the children to gather mushrooms in the woods. She accepts hardship and tragedy with dignity and grace. Only the death of her daughter Esther is too much for her. After Esther dies, Katie is defeated.

Many of Mike’s neighbors are highly religious. Mike theorizes that the more persecuted a minority is, the more religious its members become. Yet beneath the religion, Mike sees hypocrisy in many, especially in the fat Chassidic rabbi imported from Europe at great cost to his relatively poor congregation. When the Chassids celebrate the coming of the rabbi, Mike sees the rabbi stuffing himself and thinks the rabbi will eat all the food at the celebration before the children get a chance to eat anything. He mentions that possibility to Reb Samuel, who sends Mike home without having eaten any of the feast; but, Mike says, Reb Samuel should have listened to the wisdom of the little child. After a while, the rabbi accepts a better paying job at a wealthy congregation. The rabbi’s leaving crushes Reb Samuel. Reb Samuel, a truly pious, gentle man, cannot understand America and the effect it has on people.