Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340
The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917 and written by Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Forward, a Yiddish daily newspaper, was one of the first books to document the experience of Jewish immigrants in America. Its theme is the cultural loss that immigrants suffer in America, even as they experience financial success.
Levinsky arrives in 1885 in the US as an immigrant, after his mother is killed in Russia in an anti-Semitic incident. He has been a scholar of the Talmud and a devout Jew, but he shaves his beard and becomes interested in secular, rather than religious, knowledge. Instead of worshipping in synagogue, he worships the spires of City College and yearns for a college education, hoping to apply the zeal with which he once studied Talmud to secular studies. However, he becomes a manufacturer of cloaks and applies himself to besting the competition through such tactics as giving his workers a day off on Saturdays instead of Sundays and paying them less for this allowance. In the end, though he has made a fortune, he feels fraudulent and is loveless.
The novel is a critique of the American Dream. Though Levinsky has gone from rags to riches, he is unhappy and feels fraudulent. He feels he is still the poor Talmud scholar in Russia rather than the great American man of business, and his outer appearance does not change his inner identity and sense of loss of his homeland and culture. At a time when the American Dream was widely celebrated, this novel exposes its flaws and the sense of loss that immigrants felt in America.
The novel is also notable for its realistic portrayal of the Jewish-American way of life at the time (the late 1800s and early 1900s). The novel teems with vivid characters and scenes, including the street life of the East Side (what we would call today the Lower East Side), including its trade unions and socialist movements. The novel is a window into the vanished world of immigrant Jews in New York City.
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