Jews Without Money

by Irwin Granich

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

There are a number of valuable quotes in Jews Without Money by Michael Gold that illustrate the poverty, anti-Semitism, and immigration-related hardships that the family faces. The novel is set in Manhattan at the beginning of the 1890s, and the family lives in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is considered a slum. Most of the people in the slum are Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe facing harsh conditions.

The novel tells a common tragic story of an impoverished family on the brink of disaster when the father cannot work due to illness and injury, and the wife and main character have to try to “save” their family from ruin. The main character has to drop out of school even though he is a good student. The story is especially poignant because it is semi-autobiographical.

One strong theme in the novel is that the American dream is not as easy and prosperous as many immigrants believed. The father says:

It is better to be dead in this country than to not have money.

The narrator laments the effect poverty has on peoples' spirits.

Poverty makes some people insane.

Another famous quote describes, in graphic detail, some of the everyday realities that immigrants in the slum faced. The narrator says,

One steaming hot night I couldn't sleep for the bedbugs. They have a peculiar nauseating smell of their own; it is the smell of poverty. They crawl slowly and pompously, bloated with blood, and the touch and smell of these parasites wakens every nerve to disgust.

It’s a vivid image, and the narrator elaborates,

Bedbugs are what people mean when they say: Poverty. There are enough pleasant superficial liars writing in America. I will write a truthful book about Poverty; I will mention bedbugs.

The ending quote demonstrates the young man’s hope that a worker’s revolution will save his people. This is striking because the novel takes place in the years before workers began forming the unions that would ultimately protect them. The heyday of union organization took place during 1900 through 1920 and again during the Great Depression. Though there is not a workers’ revolution that leads to a socialist or communist state like in Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe, there is a significant change in the relationship between workers and employers.

The final quote reads:

O worker’s Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. . . . O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle, and to live. O great Beginning!

Though the particular community Gold wrote about does not exist in the exact same form today, many of the same themes apply to immigrants and impoverished people in the United States.

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