World of Our Fathers
From 1880, when there were approximately 80,000 Jews in New York, until 1912, when the Jewish population in that city rose to over a million, a great wave of migration from the ghettos and other restricted Jewish zones of Eastern Europe spilled over to the shores of the metropolis. In World of Our Fathers, a National Book Award-winning social and cultural history treating the origins and consequences of this migration, Irving Howe describes in meticulous detail and with dramatic flair the lives of immigrant Jews centered mostly in New York City. Other scholarly but less ambitious histories have investigated the impact of Jewish migration upon smaller communities—notably Edwin Wolf II and Maxwell Whiteman’s The History of the Jews of Philadelphia: From Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson and Selig Adler and Thomas E. Connolly’s From Ararat to Suburbia: The History of the Jewish Community of Buffalo. And other scholars have edited anthologies or collected pictorial records concerning the immigrant Jews of New York City, among them Milton Hindus’ The Old East Side; Allon Schoener’s Portal to America: The Lower East Side 1870-1925; and Abraham Shulman’s The New Country: Jewish Immigrants in America. Still other writers have treated in affectionate, mostly impressionistic terms parts of the same subject, for example Harry Golden in Greatest Jewish City in the World. Vastly more informative than these works, World of Our Fathers is the definitive history of the East-European Jewish experience in New York City and, by extension, the story of two million people from this migration wave who eventually settled throughout America.
Without question, the story needed to be told. Published in the year when Alex Haley’s Roots and Lucille Clifton’s slighter memoir Generations also appeared, World of Our Fathers treats the similar theme of investigating the origins and recording the early hardships of a minority people in America. Based in part upon an exhaustive research into documentary materials, Howe’s book is more than a detailed history; it is also a living record, informed by the commentaries of a great many Jews who experienced the shock of passage, the struggles of settling in the strange new land. From their diaries, letters, and autobiographies, the author allows the witnesses to tell the stories of their own sufferings and triumphs. Altogether, the book is a powerful social document, a model of historical research humanized by a sense of social and cultural values.
Howe, who has published literary studies on Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, as well as a great many shorter monographs on other writers, brings to his task a full appreciation of the complex psychological forces that operate upon individuals. Moreover, his interest in social upheavals—the forces that work upon masses of people—is evidenced in such works as The American Communist Party: A Critical History and The U. A. W. and Walter Reuther. World of Our Fathers shows both concerns, a psychological curiosity about the ways in which ordinary people in a hostile environment fail, prosper, or simply survive; and a social curiosity about the organization of people who strive together or clash as they interact to achieve their goals. Because the first subject holds greater interest for most readers, the early sections of the book concerning the immigrant experience are likely to be favored. However, the author’s particular contribution as a social historian may be measured as well in the sections dealing with “Jewish Labor, Jewish Socialism,” and “Breakup of the Left.” Also, Howe is unusually well-qualified to assess the cultural impact of literature, journalism, drama, and popular entertainment upon Jewish life in America. His extensive discussion of “The Culture of Yiddish”—treating such topics as “The Yiddish Word,” “The Yiddish Theatre,” “The Scholar-Intellectuals,” and “The Yiddish Press”—increases significantly our knowledge about a great heritage, now all but lost to the descendants of immigrant stock.
It is, after all, to these descendants that the book is chiefly addressed. More than a historian intent upon recapturing an era of lost time, Howe is a philosopher who asks questions pertinent to contemporary readers. These questions, implicit in his study, are: What are the special qualities that distinguished East-European Jewish migration from that of other national, religious, or ethnic groups? And what permanent contributions to American culture were left behind by these immigrants?
To answer the first question, Howe examines the special conditions under which the predominantly Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants left their shtetls and ghettos during the decade of the 1880’s and thereafter to seek a better life in a golden land, the goldeneh medina rumored to offer freedom, opportunity, and fortune. Like many other peoples, they had been the victims of oppression, both religious and social, in their native lands; they were mostly poor, undernourished, and uneducated; they were generally from the lower...
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