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.
The Shawl (1989) – Cynthia Ozick