Annotated Bibliography

Antin, Mary.  The Promised Land, New York: Standard Publications, Inc., 1912.

In her best-selling autobiography, The Promised Land, Mary Antin sketched her life in America after emigrating from Russia. Espousing the myth of the American dream, she shared how the idea of America ran counter to the economic, political, and cultural oppression of Europe. She pointed to her own adolescent success as proof of the abundant opportunities offered to immigrants who willingly abandoned the old to wholeheartedly embrace the new. The Promised Land brought her nationwide fame—selling nearly 85,000 copies before her death.  It also provided the opportunity for her to begin speaking publicly—a platform she used to promote acceptance of immigration to the United States.

 Birmingham, Stephen.  The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews, New York: Little Brown, 1999.

The Rest of Us represents the last in Birmingham’s historical trilogy about American Jews.  It covers American Judaism from the massive immigrations of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to contemporary issues related to labor relations, politics, and anti-Semitism. It is a story of Jewish success and prospering against all odds—including poverty and racism—focusing on several highly successful immigrants, such as Samuel Goldwyn, Benny (Bugsy) Siegel, Helena Rubenstein, and Irving Berlin.

Cahan, Abraham.  The Rise of David Levinsky, New York: Kessinger Publishing, 1917.

The Rise of David Levinsky, written by the legendary founder and editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, is an early Jewish-American classic. According to scholar Sam B. Girgus, “The novel is more than an important literary work and cultural document. It forms part of the traditional ritual of renewal of the American Way.”  First published in 1917, Abraham Cahan’s realistic novel tells the story of a young Talmudic scholar who emigrates from a small town in Russia to the melting pot that was turn-of-the-century New York City. As the Jewish “greenhorn” rises from the depths of poverty to become a millionaire garment merchant, he discovers the unbearably high price of assimilation.

Cahan, Abraham.  Yekl: The Tale of a New York Ghetto, New York: Dover Publications, 1970.

 Considered by many to be the first English novel with a New York East Side immigrant as its hero, this novel would later be used as the basis of the film Hester Street.  Critics consider Cahan to be the dean of realism for New York City’s Lower East Side, as well as an authority on Yiddish-speaking immigrants who chose to settle in the United States.  The reader of Yekl (1896) becomes immersed in the Jewish immigrant sub-culture and comes away with a strong sense of the extent to which their long history formed them as a people and guided them through many struggles to succeed within the bigger culture. Cahan, with his keen perceptive ability, presents human nature in its various forms. While the subject matter is serious, the characters have a larger-than-life aspect to them creating stories that are a combination of tragedy and humor.

Chametzky, Jules.  Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

This work serves as the most important and complete anthology of Jewish American literature to date—examining Jewish American literature from 1654 to the present.  This effort utilizes the work of 145 writers from all genres, including fiction, poetry, dramas, essays, journals, autobiographies, sermons, and lyrics.  Containing a plethora of critical writings that were either translated into English from Hebrew or Yiddish or were originally written in English, the book is organized chronologically to help identify large movements, such as the “Literature of Arrival, 1654-1880” and “From Margin to Mainstream in Difficult Times, 1924-1945.”  Represented within these pages are the Yiddish Yunge and Introspectivist circles, the Objectivist poets,  as well as female authors.  The introductions, head notes, and annotations describe the political and historic forces at work that affected Jewish life in the areas of religion and culture.  This great anthology is essential for Jewish studies and American literature collections alike.

Cohen, Rose.  Out of the Shadow: A Russian Girlhood on the Lower East Side, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

In this appealing autobiography, Rose Cohen looks back on her family’s journey from Tsarist Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side. Her account of their struggles and of her own coming-of-age in a complex, new world vividly illustrates what was, for some, the American experience. First published in 1918, Cohen’s narrative conveys a powerful sense of the aspirations and frustrations of an immigrant, Jewish family in an alien culture.  With uncommon frankness, Cohen reports her youthful impressions of daily life in the tenements as well as the working conditions she experienced in garment sweatshops and domestic service. She introduces a large cast including family and friends, her co-workers, employers, and mentors. In simple yet moving terms, she recalls how she found educational opportunities while confronting the setbacks of poor health and the dilemmas of courtship. She also records the gradual weakening of her family’s commitment to religion as they find their way from the shadow of poverty toward the mainstream of American life.

Cutler, Irving.  The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

This book serves as the first comprehensive study of Chicago’s Jewish population—masterfully tracing the history of Chicago’s Jews from those who came to America in the 1830s and 1840s to the Eastern European Jews who arrived in large numbers from 1800 to 1925.   The Jews of Chicago is the fascinating story of the cultural, religious, economic, and everyday life of Chicago’s Jews—bringing to life the people, events, and institutions that helped shape today’s Jewish community.  Cutler intertwines neighborhood histories with representative biographical vignettes of some of Chicago’s best known figures, such as Saul Bellow, Benny Goodman, Mel Tormé, Studs Terkel, Paul Muni, Mandy Patinkin, Emil G. Hirsch, Julius Rosenwald, Arthur Goldberg and many others.

Diner, Hasia.  The Jews of the United States, 1645 to 2000, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 

This work examines the efforts of the Jews to intertwine their fate and fortunes with the United States—an endeavor marked by great struggle and great promise. The Jews of the United States begins in 1654 with the first wave of Jewish immigrants and continues to modern times. Diner’s systematic and synthetic study chronicles Jewish participation in American history from the American Revolution and the Civil War to labor movements and the civil rights movement.  Diner draws on American and Jewish sources to explain the chronology of American Jewish history, the structure of its communal institutions, and the inner dynamism that propelled it.  This work also examines the compelling urges to maintain the Jewish culture and traditions that clashed with efforts to assimilate into American culture.  This book was published in conjunction with the outstanding “Jewish Communities in the Modern World” series from the University of California Press.

Diner, Hasia.  Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Hasia Diner painstakingly examines the history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in terms of its Jewish community, largely populated by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This account spans more than ninety years noting that the Lower East Side was never ethnically or religiously homogenous.  It was, however, a place of tenements, poverty, sweatshops, a dark warren of pushcart-lined streets, and social work pioneering. Professor Diner surveys its popular culture and the impact of the Lower East Side as an iconic symbol upon such diverse venues as children’s stories, novels, movies, museum exhibits, television shows, and summer-camp reenactments.  Through the passage of time, according to Hasia, the Lower East Side was enshrined as the portal through which Jews passed from European oppression into the promise of America. Particularly after 1960, the Lower East Side gave secularized and suburban Jews a culturally transmitted story of their origins and heritage.  This book is an exceptional, informative, and highly recommended example of scholarship which details the history of a community, a heritage, and a cultural identity arising from one of the most distinctive and unique neighborhoods in American twentieth century history.

Diner, Hasia R.  A New Promised Land: A History of Jews in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Serving as an engaging chronicle of Jewish life in the United States, A New Promised Land reconstructs the multifaceted background and very American adaptations of this religious group, from the arrival of twenty-three Jews in the New World in 1654 through the development of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements.   Diner supplies fascinating details about Jewish religious traditions, holidays, and sacred texts. In addition, she relates the history of the Jewish religious, political, and intellectual institutions in the United States, and addresses some of the biggest issues facing Jewish Americans today, including their increasingly complex relationship with Israel.

Dinnerstein, Leonard.  Anti-Semitism in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

This book is the first to provide a comprehensive history of prejudice against Jews in the United States from colonial times to the present—tracing American anti-Semitism from its roots in Christian teachings to their present day permutations.  Throughout his book, Dinnerstein emphasizes that anti-Semitism in America is less prominent as compared to other nations due to traditions of tolerance, diversity, and a secular national government.  However, according to the author, a long tradition of prejudice, suspicion, and hatred against Jews still exists in America as a result of a resilience and vehemence that remains below the surface.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. Uneasy at Home, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

This compilation of essays by historian Dinnerstein continues the theme of David Gerber’s collection, Anti-Semitism in American History (Univ. of Illinois Pr., 1986). Nearly all of these essays focus on 19th- and 20th-century American anti-Semitism in various guises and locales. Dinnerstein is at his best when writing about particular events.   Perhaps because of his extensive work on anti-Semitism, Dinnerstein is less sanguine than other writers when exploring the level of tolerance in U.S. society— reporting the disturbing note of a high level of anti-Semitic feeling among blacks.

Feldstein, Stanly. The Land that I Show You: Three Centuries of Jewish Life in America, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1978. 

This book traces the Jewish-American experience during the last three centuries—from 1654, when the first Jews immigrants came from Brazil to the present.  Feldstein’s work is a careful historical examination of the  struggles, triumphs, and problems of Jews in America.  Divided into nine chapters, each deals with the Jewish experience in a different era.  Each chapter shows historical attention to patterns and waves of Jewish migration; conflicts within the Jewish Community such as the conflict between the German and East-European Jews; and most importantly the relations of the Jews as a group to major social institutions, such as the economy, the educational system, organized religion, as well as the arts and entertainment.

Gerber, Jane S.  The Jews of Spain:  A History of the Sephardic Experience, New York: The Free Press, 1992. 

The Jews of Spain details the history of Sephardic Jewry as well as exploring efforts to lay the foundation of a Jewish community in the New World.  Historian Jane Gerber traces the Sephardic experience from its beginnings in Roman Iberia to the present day, showing how Sephardic Jews created a distinctive cultural tradition—Jewish and secular—long before the European Age of Emancipation.  This effort shows why, even today, Sephardic Jews preserve the memory of Spain and rightfully assert their identity as bearers of a proud and ancient cultural tradition.

Glazer, Nathan.  American Judaism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. 

American Judaism is considered by historians and scholars to be one of the best known and widely used introductions to the study of the Jewish religion in America.  First published in 1957, Nathan Glazer’s classic, historical study of Judaism in America is written from a brief and objective historical mindset. It also offers a fine combination of sociological insight and religious sensitivity.  The crux of the book describes the shift away from the popular equation of American Judaism combined with liberalism during the last two decades and considers the threat of divisiveness within American Judaism. Glazer also discusses tensions between American Judaism and Israel as a result of a revived Orthodoxy and the disillusionment with liberalism.

Goldberg, J.J.  Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, New York: Perseus Book Group, 1996.

Widely acclaimed in both the mainstream and Jewish press, Jewish Power by J.J. Goldberg offers an engaging and provocative portrait of the people, institutions, and ideas that make up the organized, Jewish political influence in the United States. Deftly mixing anecdote and analysis, journalist Goldberg explores the inner dynamics of American Jewish life today and finds a Jewish political system in trouble, uncertain of its future, and out of touch with its presumed constituents. Of interest to anyone concerned with the future of American politics,  Jewish Power is a serious look at American Jewry and a first-rate assessment of the successes and failures of the American Jewish lobby.

Gold, Michael. Jews without Money, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1930.

Michael Gold’s Jews without Money is a passionate record of the times. First published in 1930, this fictionalized autobiography offered an unusually candid look at the thieves, gangsters, and ordinary citizens who struggled against brutal odds in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Gold’s work rivals Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky in its ability to convey the Jewish experience during the 1920s.  Jews without Money has been distributed throughout more than fourteen countries, including Germany, where the novel was employed against Nazi propaganda.

Grunberger, Michael–Editor. From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2004. 

From Haven to Home celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first settlement of Jews in America.  This work brings together an eminent group of Judaic scholars who take stock of American Jewish life, from the arrival of the first small group in Manhattan in 1654 to the present.  The contributors examine a wide range of topics, including the early history of the American Jewish community and the various significant phases of Jewish immigration, which saw the initial group of twenty-three burgeon into a thriving community of several million by the early twentieth century. Also addressed are the roles and presence of Jews in the Civil War and in World War II, anti-Semitism in America, the daily life and struggles of American Jewish women, and American Jews and politics. The essays are amply illustrated with items from the rich collection of the Library of Congress’s Hebraic Section—among them the first Hebrew Bible printed in America and the first Yiddish American cookbook, as well as selections of photographs,  diaries, maps, and sheet music.

Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spirit of the Ghetto, New York: Funk and Wagnall’s, 1902. 

This classic work details turn-of-the-century Jewish culture in New York City.  It includes chapters on the Yiddish theatre and on the Yiddish-language radical press.  As the first authentic study conducted by an outsider, this book focuses on the inner life of an American immigrant community, devoid of stereotype or sentimentality, sympathetic yet sober and realistic, intimate yet judicious and restrained.  Ultimately, it is a superb portrait of the emergent “golden age” of the Lower East Side, when a new region of heart and mind was introduced into the American conscience.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: A History of Jews in America–Four Centuries of Uneasy Encounter,  New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

This book serves as a challenging revisionist history of the Jewish experience in America.  Hertzberg constructively illuminates Jewish immigrants’ efforts to become normal Americans even in the face of being regarded as uniquely alien.  The Jews in America traces the history of American Jewry from colonial times through the arrival of German Jews in the mid-1800s. It follows the influx of Russian and Eastern Jews at the turn of the century and continues through the height of Jewish political power of the 1960s.   Hertzberg argues that in their struggle to assimilate, American Jews had denied themselves a usable past.  This effort also serves as a larger exploration of the ethnic tensions that have pervaded America—a society that since 1960 has become a collection of minorities without a dominant majority.

Hertzberg, Arthur. A Jew in America: My Life and a People’s Struggle for Identity, San Francisco:  Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.  

Hertzberg recounts his own self-discovery, confronting the choices he has made and offering a history of American Jews and their struggle for identity and survival.  Throughout his life, this world-renowned rabbi, activist, author, historian, and confidante to the powerful has advocated that a true Jew is not an ethnic Jew who makes central his support for Israel or his fight against anti-Semitism, but rather a person deeply tied to the religion and its principles.  Undaunted by controversy, Hertzberg has been the moral conscience of American Jews, taking a stand on all the great issues of our time, from the creation of Israel through the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War and the highly fractious world of Jews today both here and abroad. Hertzberg is not willing to cede the great tradition either to religious fundamentalists or to the completely secularized.  This book reflects the richness of the extraordinarily active life of a man of deep knowledge and integrity. Learned in many areas, genuinely interested in other religions, Hertzberg expresses his own faith with a passion and honesty that gives his story a singular strength.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1976.

This book traces the plight of two million Eastern European Jews as they journey to America over four decades. Beginning in the 1880s, World of Our Fathers offers a rich portrayal of the Eastern European Jewish experience in New York, and shows how the immigrant generation tried to maintain their Yiddish culture while becoming American.  Howe details the impact of poverty, education, socialism, and the garment trades and unions, Yiddish literature and the Yiddish theatre on their lives.  Howe combines primary scholarly material (early newspapers, shipping records, immigration and governmental reports, first person memoirs) with compelling novelistic style to produce a book that contributes greatly to historical scholarship.  This work is not only for Jews but any reader whose people came from somewhere else, and, coming here, became something unique.

Joselit, Jenna W.  The Wonder of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1850-1950, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

The Wonders of America examines the social history of Jewish culture highlighting the cultural ingenuity and adaptive genius of American Jewish life.   Drawing on advertisements, etiquette manuals, sermons, and surveys, Joselit constructs a lively and humorous account of how three generations of American Jews created their distinctive American culture. This provocative, enlightening study describes the forging of a rich and exuberant modern Jewish identity and makes it clear that it is not the theoretical debates of rabbis and scholars but the small choices of daily life that shape and sustain a culture.

Kobrin, Rebecca.  Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Chosen Capital examines the way in which Jews played a central role in the development of American capitalism.  Kobrin scrutinizes the role of anti-Semitism in the interaction between Jews and capitalism.  This work is devoted to examining ways in which Jews in North America shaped and were shaped by America’s particular system of capitalism. The author argues that Jews fundamentally molded aspects of the economy during the century when American capital was being redefined by industrialization, war, migration, and the emergence of the United States as a superpower.  Chosen Capital surveys such diverse topics as Jews’ participation in the real estate industry, the liquor industry, and the scrap metal industry, as well as Jewish political groups and unions bent on reforming American capitalism.  The volume also lays bare how American capitalism reshaped Judaism itself by encouraging the mass manufacturing and distribution of foods like matzah and the transformation of synagogue cantors into recording stars. These essays force us to rethink not only the role Jews played in American economic development but also how capitalism has shaped Jewish life and Judaism over the course of the twentieth century.

Korn, Bertram Wallace.  American Jewry and the Civil War, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. 

Esteemed Rabbi Bertram Korn examines the Jewish role in early American history with a focus on the Jewish community as a whole during the tumultuous years of the war, and on its effort to raise the concept of human rights and equality above restrictions based on race or religion.  Korn recounts, with great detail, efforts by Rabbis of both the North and South to counsel and advise young Jewish men fighting preservation of the Union.  This book is a biography of the Jewish community in the North, South, and West, and its struggle for equality and dignity.

Lang, Lucy Robins.  Tomorrow is Beautiful, New York: Macmillan Press, 1948.

Lucy Robins Lang was an anarchist and labor activist, who contributed significantly to the campaign to free Eugene V. Debs and other political prisoners during and after WWI. She also worked tirelessly for the AF of L and was a close confidant of Samuel Gompers.  This is her out-of-print autobiography worthwhile for those interested in the labor movement, Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, Jewish-American history, or Lang’s family history.   Lang was less concerned about broad or abstract ideas than she was with trying to help people for whom she cared deeply.  She also recounts her origins in the Ukraine and her time spent as a child worker in Chicago—experiences which served to radicalize and motivate her to action.  Lang is considered by labor activists to be one of the unsung heroines of the American labor movement of the early twentieth century.

Marcus, Jacob Rader.  The American Jew, 1585-1990: A History, Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995.

Jacob Marcus is the founding scholar of American Jewish history, whose numerous publications have defined the field.  This widely known American Jewish historian tells the story of  the American Jew from the Colonial Period to the present in a clear and authentic voice.  Vast in scope and rich in detail, this book brings together a four-century continental experience in a compelling, readable narrative.  Ultimately, this book helps readers come to understand and appreciate the sweep of American Jewish history.

Moore, Deborah D.  To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and Los Angeles, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

The first, great, modern migration of the Jewish people, from the Old World to America, has been often and expertly chronicled; but until now, the second great wave of Jewish migration has been overlooked.  Spurred by a post-World War II economic boom, American Jews sought new beginnings in the nation’s south and west. Thousands abandoned their previous homes in the urban, industrial centers of the north and moved to Miami and Los Angeles seeking warmth, opportunity, and ultimately a new Jewish community—one unlike any they had ever known. This move would be as significant as their ancestors’ departure from their traditional worlds. Earlier Jewish immigrants to the New World sought to fit into the well-established communities they found in the north, but Miami and Los Angeles were frontier towns with few rules for newcomers. Jews could establish new economic niches in the hotel and real estate industries, and build new schools, political organizations, and community centers to reshape the cities’ ethnic landscapes. Drawing upon rich and extensive research, historian Deborah Dash Moore traces the evolution of a new consensus on the boundaries of Jewish life and what it means to be Jewish.  Today these sun-soaked, entrepreneurial communities have become part of a truly American, self-confident style of Judaism.

Nyburg, Sydney.  The Chosen People, Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1917.

This fictional work depicts the true class conflict in Baltimore’s textile industry at the turn of the century.  Considered by many to be one of the gems of Jewish American literature, it focuses on a strike between Eastern European Jews and German-descendent Jews involving religious leaders, Christian social workers, and the local gentry.  The novel follows the actions of the hapless naïf, Reform Rabbi Philip Graetz, whose ties to both communities compel him to attempt mediation between them. His failure and frustration offer a complicated and compelling view of an often-ignored side of Jewish life experienced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Potok, Chiam.  Wanderings: Chiam Potok’s History of the Jews, New York: Fawcett Crest, 1978. 

Wanderings is a fascinating account of the Jews’ four thousand-year history, as narrated by master novelist, Chaim Potok.  This work recreates great historical events, exploring Jewish life in its infinite variety and in many eras and places.  This work continues Potok’s efforts to the raise the issue of the conflict between the traditional aspects of Jewish thought and culture and modernity to a wider, non-Jewish culture.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.

Met with critical acclaim, Roth’s debut novel, Call it Sleep, is the magnificent story of David Schearl, the dangerously imaginative child who came of age in the slums of New York City.  Schearl is the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrant parents who is torn by his polar opposite parents.  Six-year-old David has a close and loving relationship with his mother Genya, but his father Albert is aloof, resentful and angry toward his wife and son. David’s development takes place between fear of his father’s potential violence and the degradation of life in the streets of the tenement slums.

Sachar, Howard M.  A History of Jews in America, New York: Knopf, 1992.

With impressive scholarship and a riveting sense of detail, George Washington University historian Howard M. Sachar tells the stories of Spanish Marranos and Russian refugees, of aristocrats and threadbare social revolutionaries, and of philanthropists and Hollywood moguls. At the same time, he illuminates the grand themes of the Jewish encounter with America, from the bigotry of a Christian majority to the tensions among Jews of different origins and beliefs, and from the struggle for acceptance to the ambivalence of assimilation.  This effort also includes particularly incisive sections on American Jews’ heated divisions over Zionism, the efforts to rescue European Jews from the Nazi’s, black-Jewish relations, and the Jews’ impact on American culture.  This  narrative unfolds to reveal a splendid epic of immigration, acceptance, acculturation and reaffirmed identity in the face of institutionalized discrimination.

Sanders, Ronald.  Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.

This work examines the plight of Jews in Russia and the mass Ukrainian immigration to the United States, Israel, and Western Europe from 1881 to the present, which he attributes to Russian pogroms and Nazi persecution.  The author’s exhaustive research unearths a worldwide system of care and placement for Jewish refugees but notes that those seeking to escape from Hitler mostly had to fend for themselves in a largely unreceptive world.  The Ukrainian massacre of Jews and the aftereffects of the 1968 Eastern European campaign against “Zionists” are also explored in this book.  This effort relies on extensive first-hand accounts, to recreate Jewish emigration as a personal drama that took freedom-seekers to places ranging from the Argentine wilderness to Colorado.  All told, this book reminds readers that poverty among Jews in Europe was high, Jewish experiences of anti-Semitism were longstanding, and efforts to escape were, in many cases, heroic.

Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: A History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Sarna (American Jewish History, Brandeis Univ.) is one of the foremost scholars in a field that has developed primarily during the last generation.  American Judaism stands as a comprehensive survey of the entirety of American Jewish history.  This superior work traces American Judaism from its origins in the colonial era through the present day, exploring how Judaism adapted, how American culture affected Jewish religion and culture, and how American Jews shaped their own communities and faith in the new world.  It is backed by original sources principally derived from the Reform movement, which, according to the author,  gathered momentum after reaching this side of the Atlantic.

Schulman, Jason.  “The Yahudim and the Americans: The Leo Frank Affair as a Turning Point in Jewish History,” accessed April 7, 2014,

Professor Schulman of Columbia University argues the Leo Frank affair is arguably the single-most loaded event in Jewish American history, touching on multiple issues that have defined the rise of Jews in America: Americanization, labor, upward mobility, gender, immigration, nativism, and anti-Semitism.   Schulman, in examining this case and attributing its importance to American Jewish history, recognizes that literature on the Leo Frank affair is copious, but lacks what he calls a co-religionist interpretation.  He also contends that historians have focused too much of their attention of the Leo Frank affair itself, and not of the development of anti-Semitism in the South, or on the history of the American South.  Ultimately, Schulman asserts that the Leo Frank affair served as a perfect opportunity to investigate German-Russian relations and the Americanization of the new immigrant Jew.

Shapiro, Lamed.  The Cross and Other Jewish Stories, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Shapiro’s stories explore and confront the nature of violence as experienced by the Eastern European Jews living in the Ukraine. These stories depict mob violence of pogroms committed against Jews as well as the traumatic after-effects of rape, murder, and powerlessness. The author’s protagonists are refugees from the shtetl who are in search of the traditional way of life and are desperately in search of food, shelter, love, and things of beauty.  Sadly, in Shapiro’s stories this search most often ends in a descent into terror.

Singer, Isaac Bahevis.  The Slave, Der Knact, New York: Central Yiddish Culture Organization.; First Edition (1967).

Author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s moving Yiddish tale recounts the story of Jacob, a scholar sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacre, who falls in love with a gentile woman. Through the eyes of Jacob, the book details the history of Jewish settlement in Poland at the end of the 17th century. This book serves as a criticism of Orthodox Jewish society.  The book’s setting during the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres could be seen as a historical parallel to what many American Jews were thinking and feeling during the early 1960s—a time when the full magnitude of the Holocaust was beginning to surface in the media.

Sorin, Gerald.  Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

In this one-volume history of the Jewish experience in America, Gerald Sorin argues that, from colonial times to the present, “acculturation” rather than “assimilation” has best described the experience of Jewish Americans. Sorin explains that American Jews have maintained their unique ethnic characteristics yet have become part of mainstream, middle-class, American life. Sorin also shows how the large migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century made a lasting impact on how other Americans imagine, understand, and relate to Jewish Americans and their cultural contributions today.   Ultimately, this effort deals with the transformation of a people, their religion, their move into trade and commerce, their political commitments domestically and internationally (especially after the Holocaust), and their contributions to education and culture.

Yezierska, Anzia. Hungry Hearts, Cambridge: The Riverside Press,  1920.

Set in the clamorous streets and dilapidated tenements of this New World ghetto, Hungry Hearts depicts the despair of families trapped in unspeakable poverty, evoking the clatter and roar of the sweatshop, laying bare the heart constricted in the midst of teeming life.  Drawing on her own experience, Yezierska portrays an immigrant woman seeking her own America, a land of her dreams.

Yezierska, Anzia.  The Bread Givers, New York: Persea, 1925. 

Unique in modern literature, The Bread Givers is a portrait of a poor, Jewish immigrant family as told from the perspective of the youngest daughter. While the overall picture is bleak, Yezierska weaves a thread of hope through the despair in her main character’s life.  The first half of the book is the melodramatic tale of an impoverished Jewish immigrant family living in a New York ghetto, suffering under the tyrannical and hypocritical piousness of the father. At times, the foolishness and ineptitude of the father is almost comical, but the suffering inflicted on his family is harrowingly poignant. The second half of the work is a psychologically and sociologically astute feminist coming-of-age tale, as the youngest daughter breaks from her family to re-define herself as “Americanized,” leaving for college and eventually becoming a teacher in her old neighborhood.  This novel’s provocative  opening gives way to  considerations of the difficulties inherent in the narrator’s occasionally ambivalent desires for assimilation within an alien culture and for a self-respecting independence from her own patriarchal family.  All told, Yezeriska was a gifted storyteller, crafting an extremely readable tale in simple prose, ignited intermittently with profound illuminations regarding life and love.

Zipster, Arthur and Pearl.  Fire and Grace: The Life of Rose Pastor Stokes, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

In Fire and Grace, Arthur and Pearl Zipster trace the life of Rose Pastor Stokes, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who came to America at the age of eleven.  The Zipsters detail Stokes’ life-long commitment to social causes, which began as a cigar maker in a Cleveland factory, where she experienced appalling working conditions for twelve years.  A vibrant, colorful woman, Rose Pastor Stokes contributed much to the social and political history of early twentieth-century America.  In Fire and Grace, the Zipsters present a woman who dedicated her life to fighting for “a world in which there will be no unemployment, hunger, insecurity, or war.”

Historical Fiction

The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) –  Abraham Cahan 

The Rise of David Levinsky is a novel that is written in the style of a memoir detailing the life of David as an immigrant. It begins with him as a dedicated Talmud scholar who then ventures to a United State to begin a new life. He starts with four cents in his pocket and works up all the way to owning his own factory. He starts as a devout Jew and became less and less in touch with his religion as he Americanized. The story of David is not a new one, the events described in the book are similar to what many Jewish immigrants would experience. Fiction with a base in reality gives the reader a vivid understating of what life was like for Jewish immigrants.



Jews Without Money (1930) – Itzok Isaac Granich

In a book loosely based on his own life, Gold describes the kind of hand-to-mouth lifestyle that many Jews on the Lower East Side experienced in the last nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Michael (the character) lives in a tenement building mostly populated by other Jewish families; it is a world of poverty, gangsters, and competition between neighborhoods. Though his family barely survived as it was, Michael’s father’s attempts at becoming wealthy quickly result in injury and even more difficulty in making enough money to survive. To add insult to injury, Michael’s sister is killed by a truck. By the end of the book, Michael, who spends much of the story pondering the role of God and the Messiah, is fully disillusioned with the world in which he lives. He turns instead to socialism as his new religion and savior, much as the author did. Jews Without Money is at once a pseudo-documentary of poor Jewish life in America and a sort of propaganda for Gold’s beliefs in socialism.


Call It Sleep (1934) – Henry Roth

Call It Sleep (1934) – Henry Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep is based on the author’s own experiences growing up as a Jewish American in New York City during the early 1900s. In the novel, David Schearl is a young boy who must come to terms with conflicting forces to forge his own identity. The conflicting forces include intense love for and dependence on his mother Genya coupled with fear and hatred for his unstable father Albert. David must also reconcile his Jewish heritage with both his mainstream American tendencies and his curiosity about other cultures and religions.

Call It Sleep was first published in the middle of the Great Depression, and it was consequently overlooked by many mainstream readers at the time until. Although Roth still wrote occasional short stories after the novel’s poor performance, he relied on alternate careers to support himself for the next thirty years. It was only in the 1960s, when the novel was rediscovered by critics and readers alike, that Roth was finally able to once again return to writing as more than just a hobby.   This novel offers a view of the American dream through the eyes of an immigrant child. In addition, the book has earned its place as an enduring document of the Jewish American experience.



Focus (1945) – Arthur Miller

Focus tells the story of a businessman in the last days of World War II. Newman, the main character, begins to wear a pair of eyeglasses that make him “look Jewish.” Himself an ardent anti-Semite and racist, he then becomes the target for others’ hostility and stereotyping. Through his interaction with his neighbor Mr. Finkelstein, an actual Jew, Newman learns the truth of the Jewish experience and its all its dangers. Because of his alleged Jewishness and eventual unwillingness to refute it, Newman is eventually alienated from his former world, finally seeing the irrationality of hatred and his “friends’” willingness to hurt others because of their lineage.

While the core of the story is the way a gentile learns to understand the Jewish struggle, perhaps the most significant aspect of the book is Miller’s commentary on Old War Jews. Through a story narrated by Finkelstein’s father, Miller arguably implies that the Jews have historically been complicit in their own destruction because of their willingness to comply with their antagonists. Such a statement, though not necessarily Miller’s own view exactly, did not sit well with many fellow Jews in Miller’s day and continues to be a source of tension.



The Dangling Man (1944) – Saul Bellow

This novel explores the trials and tribulations of Joseph and his relationships with his wife and friends during World War Two.  He becomes frustrated as he is waiting to be drafted in the Army. The story is told in the format of a diary and it serves as a philosophical confessional for his life during this time. It consists of personal diary entries dating from December 15, 1942 to April 9,1943. The story ends with his entrance into the army for World War II, he hopes the army life will release him from his current suffering as he hopes for possible happiness.



The Assistant (1957) – Bernard Malamud 

Bernard Malamud once said he was concerned with Jewish “ethicality – how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living.” The Assistant, his second and best novel, is a portrait of one such Jewish struggle for survival. Based loosely on Malamud’s own childhood as the son of an immigrant grocer, it follows Morris Bober in his quest to carve out a living owning and operating a grocery store. One day, the grocery is held up by two robbers who steal from the already destitute store and beat Morris badly. Not long after, a young man appears asking for work in exchange for a pittance. His name is Frank Alpine, a drifter from the West coast who is later revealed to be one of the guilt-stricken robbers. Frank wants to work “for the experience,” he says. What happens next is a beating-heart of a novel that confronts Malamud’s most cherished themes head-on. For Malamud, even Frank, whose transgressions do not stop with the robbery, is capable of redemption. But things grow much darker before there’s light. The Assistant remains a paean to the Jewish immigrant experience, a window into a mostly vanished world told with sharp insight and infinite sympathy. Not long after Frank joins the grocery, he reflects on Morris’ universal battle for life:   “What kind of man did you have to be to shut yourself up in an overgrown coffin and never once during the day, so help you, outside of going for your Jewish newspaper, poke your head out of the door for a snootful of air? The answer wasn’t very hard to say—you had to be a Jew. They were born prisoners.”



Good-Bye, Columbus (1959) – Phillip Roth 

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth is the story of Neil Klugman and pretty, spirited Brenda Patimkin, he of poor Newark, she of suburban Short Hills, who meet one summer break and dive into an affair that is as much about social class and suspicion as it is about love. Roth explores the themes of acculturation and assimilation of second-and third-generation Jews into American life; their attempts to fulfill the American dream; their relationship to their heritage, both American and European; and the tension between wealth and intellect. The novella is accompanied by five short stories that range in tone from the iconoclastic to the astonishingly tender and that illuminate the subterranean conflicts between parents and children and friends and neighbors in the American Jewish diaspora.



The Chosen (1967) – Chaim Potok 

The Chosen follows the lives of two young Jewish boys in New York City in the 1940s. The novel follow Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, two best friends who are both Jewish and yet are raised in two very different households. Reuven grows up in a Reformed Jewish household, raised only by his father. Danny, on the other hand, is raised in a strictly Orthodox household. His father, a Romanian immigrant, is in charge of their congregation, and upon his passing, it will be Danny who takes over his spot. The novel grapples with Danny’s inner struggle, as although he knows it is his duty, he wants to become an academic and not a rabbi. Potok highlights the pressures put on young Jewish boys to succeed, while also giving insight into the challenges second-generation Jewish immigrants faced from their parents. Potok also examines the tension between pro- and anti-Zionist Jews of the 1940s, and their internal struggle over a Jewish homeland in Israel.