The Rise of David Levinsky

by Abraham Cahan

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722

Here are some quotes from the novel:

  • "Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America in 1885 with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance." This excerpt begins the book, and, in it, David Levinsky reflects on his transformation from poverty to success in America. However, success has not changed his inner being, and he still feels as he did when he was a penniless Talmud student in Russia.
  • "If it be true that our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor, the distinction is probably due, in some measure, to the extremely important part which Talmud studies have played in the spiritual life of the race." Levinsky comments on the way in which Talmud studies benefit the mental vigor of the Jewish students who, like him, devote themselves to study.
  • "The image of the modest college building was constantly before me. More than once I went a considerable distance out of my way to pass the corner of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, where that edifice stood. I would pause and gaze at its red, ivy-clad walls, mysterious high windows, humble spires; I would stand watching the students on the campus and around the great doors, and go my way, with a heart full of reverence, envy, and hope, with a heart full of quiet ecstasy." After Levinsky arrives in the United States, he comes to worship secular knowledge over religious knowledge. City College, which then stood on Lexington and 23rd Street in Manhattan, becomes like his synagogue, and he worships its spires, as they stand for knowledge.
  • "My old religion had gradually fallen to pieces, and if its place was taken by something else, if there was something that appealed to the better man in me, to what was purest in my thoughts and most sacred in my emotions, that something was the red, church-like structure on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street. It was the synagogue of my new life." City College becomes Levinsky's new synagogue, and he hopes to become educated before earning money becomes the pursuit of his life. In the New World, Levinsky sheds his interest in religion and devotes himself to secular pursuits.
  • "My savings, and with them my sense of my own importance in the world, grew apace. As there was no time to go to the savings-bank, I had to carry what I deemed a great sum on my person (in a money-belt that I had improvised for the purpose). This was a constant source of anxiety as well as of joy. No matter how absorbed I might have been in my work or in thought, the consciousness of having that wad of paper money with me was never wholly absent from my mind. It loomed as a badge of omnipotence. I felt in the presence of Luck, which was a living spirit, a goddess." As Levinsky spends more time in the United States, he increasingly devotes time to worldly success. The fact that money is a source of joy as well as anxiety points to the double-edge nature of money for Levinksy. He wants money, but he loses a sense of himself and his background in the process of earning it.
  • "I cannot escape from my old self. My past and my present do not comport well. David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher's Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak-manufacturer." Even after Levinsky has achieved worldly success in America, he feels drawn to his old self, and he feels as though he has lost much of his identity in the process of assimilation.

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