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Speaking Volumes: Old World vs. New: How the generations deciphered, deconstructed and dealt with America

November 3, 2005 By:
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Scholar Donald Weber argues that the majority of Jewish immigrants were hungering to be accepted as Americans while others were haunted by guilt for giving up on the world they left behind in Europe. Weber is speaking metaphorically, of course; I don't remember many of immigrants I knew as a child being anguished over these issues. They were far too busy making a living. His ideas are highly specialized, though not without considerable merit, and have been gleaned from close readings of some central texts in the American Jewish canon, supplemented by a brisk survey of certain high points in 20th-century popular culture spawned by Jews.

These sorts of ideas and images fill his book Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to "The Goldbergs," published by Indiana University Press, which the Mount Holyoke professor will discuss as part of this year's Jewish Book Festival. Weber's presentation is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, at the Kaiserman JCC, 45 Haverford Road in Wynnewood. For information, call 610-896-7770, Ext. 128.

The scholar will also discuss "The Future of Jewish Stand-Up Comedy" on Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania Nursing Education Building Auditorium, 420 Guardian Drive (between the Medical School and Children's Hospital), Philadelphia. The lecture is sponsored by Penn's Jewish Studies Program Kutchin Seminar Series in cooperation with the National Museum of American Jewish History. For more information, call 215-898-6654.

"Hunger" and "haunted" are two words found repeatedly throughout this ambitious study. In his nine chapters, including an introduction and epilogue, the scholar discusses at length works of fiction by Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow, along with the entertainment styles of popular performers such as Al Jolson, Gertrude Berg, Milton Berle and Mickey Katz.

He begins with a quote from Cahan, the founder and longtime editor of the Forward newspaper, the Yiddish journal that made him a wealthy man and helped to inculcate more newly arrived Jews to these shores than almost any other single publication. "We have to be Americans. … We shall love America and help to build America. … But you will not be able to erase the old home from your heart," wrote Cahan. "Your heart will be drawn elsewhere. And in your solitude, images will rise up and stare in your faces with eternal sorrow."

Exhilaration and Anxiety

Becoming part of the New World was a process known as Americanization, and for some immigrants, according to Weber, it was an exhilarating experience, while for others it caused only anguish and doubt, leaving them feeling demoralized and with a sense of overwhelming dislocation, as the Cahan quote emphasizes.

"For Horace Kallen," writes Weber, "an important contemporary social critic who participated in the urgent debates over the fate of arriving immigrants, the project of Americanization concealed latent dangers, especially for the immigrant psyche. In 1915, Kallen introduced the term cultural pluralism - an enabling mode of preserving distinctive 'ethnic' identities - in response to the shrill nativist calls for complete assimilation on the part of aspiring 'Americans.' In time, Kallen recognized the emotional costs of such oysgrinung (the Yiddish phrase denoting the assimilative 'out-greening' process itself) on the part of the country's would-be citizens. …

" 'In the new community [the immigrant's] old habits and attitudes do not obtain the old results, and the old results are no longer successful adjustments to the situation. The immigrant personality suffers attrition and dislocation. He doesn't belong, and so, cannot find himself. Disjoined from the old ways and values and not yet at home in the new, he becomes demoralized.'

"Dislocation; disjoined; demoralized. Such extreme, charged terms convey the unhinging potential latent in the passage to America, the unforeseen baggage not checked in steerage. Indeed, Kallen's analysis bespeaks the various ruptures, both spatial and psychological, afflicting the unsettled immigrant, unmoored in the wake of New World migration. Kallen's heartfelt litany highlights the burden - call it the ordeal - of Americanization: the immigrants' challenge to locate themselves, to construct a new home in the utterly unheimisch (un-home-like) America."

Weber identifies this intense struggle in various novels that appeared throughout the 20th century, among them Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and Bellow's The Victim, in all of which Jews attempt to smooth out the rough edges of their one time shtetl existence and take on the more refined, genteel habits - especially the table manners - that are identifying traits of the New World. In each instance, it's a struggle and is resolved, for better or worse, by the conclusion of each novel.

Weber's discussions of these works constitute the heart of Haunted in the New World, and they are the source of the book's real strength. The scholar takes a detour or two to talk about what he calls "immigrant cinema," and in his epilogue examines certain aspects of popular culture in the 1950s. It's clear in these extended, more riff-like sections that Weber is having a wonderful time with the material, especially when considering Gertrude Berg and her radio and TV creation, Molly Goldberg, and the tummler-like antics of Milton Berle and Mickey Katz.

But these are definitely the weakest portions of the book. The points he makes in these chapters are valid and have bearing on his theme, but Haunted in the New World is really - and could very well have solely been - a literary analysis of his theme. He is a wonderful explicator of texts, and is especially incisive in his analyses of Roth's great novel Call It Sleep (particularly his identification of the theme of light as a redemptive force) and of the two Bellow novels.

In fact, the real triumph comes in the last chapter, called "The 'Jewish Opera,' " which provides an in-depth analysis of Bellow's highly acclaimed novella Seize the Day. Central to the work, according to Weber, is the problem of civility and manners. What does this have to do, the scholar asks, with the story of that "sad sack Tommy Wilhelm, his stern, aloof father, and the bizarre philosopher-speculator Dr. Tamkin? The novel itself … invites this kind of speculation. For Seize the Day dramatizes contrasting styles of behavior, moral and economic, as it explores the charged psychological relationship between fathers and sons. In fact, one of the pressing issues between Dr. Adler and Tommy involves the matter of civility, of proper personal deportment."

But Weber takes the discussion a step further and calls Seize the Day a reverse immigrant novel, "where the canonical narrative of striving, new world sons, embarrassed by the 'barbaric' ways of their 'greenhorn,' old world fathers is inverted: in Seize the Day, old Dr. Adler represents new world (economic) arrival and its intrafamilial costs, while in his clownish behavior Tommy reverts back to what Bellow calls the 'old system' of Jewish (sometimes styled 'Russian' or 'East European') affectations, 'a real, genuine old Jewish type' that, as a character in Herzog observes, 'digs the emotions.' "

This "vexed encounter" between the old world and an "imagined genteel America" proves both "exhilarating and bewildering," and brings Weber's thesis to a truly satisfying conclusion.

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