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Book Review: Yekl – A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan and What It Means to Be an American by Michael Walzer

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Nineteenth century Russia: a land of terror for Jews. Large mobs with blood-boiling rage in their minds raid and murder innocent Jews, ruining their lives and instilling in them a sense of hopelessness; brooding on the situation, the Jews realize what is really happening to them. The government’s striking indifference to the situation persuades them to believe that the Russian Empire is condoning crimes against their race. Jews everywhere in Russia begin to reconsider their placement in the Russian hierarchy of citizenship, a hierarchy which places them in the lower masses of society, despite their efforts to assimilate into Russian culture.

A young Jewish boy experiences life growing up in this era. He strives, more so than his friends, to assimilate into the Russian identity. Despite his constant efforts, the anti-Jewish pogroms indirectly affect his father’s workshop, leaving too many mouths to feed at the table. Strangled by these conditions, the young man’s family asks him to leave for America, where he may earn more money and eventually send for his wife and child. The young man is Abraham Cahan’s fictional Yekl, set in an 1896 novella by the same name, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. While there were many more that experienced the same conditions as he did, Jake, Yekl’s assimilated self, dealt with his circumstances with subtle irony, trying to compensate for the tragedy of being uprooted from his family — as an indirect product of the pogroms — by trying to “Americanize” as much as possible, and later by becoming hostile toward other immigrants. Assimilation and Jake’s attempts to completely rid himself of his Jewish culture cause him to victimize other, less assimilated immigrant Jews; Jake’s attempts at ridding himself of his Jewish culture are also futile, according to the philosopher Michael Walzer, author of What It Means to Be an American, because he will always retain part of his Jewish culture.

As a young man, Yekl had experienced life in Russia, working in his father’s blacksmith workshop. During this time, the aforementioned pogroms swept through Russia, and damaged the Jewish community. Yekl, at this point, had been busy trying to assimilate into the Russian identity. Indeed, “no lad in town knew so many Russian words … as Yekelé” (Cahan, Yekl 10). However, Yekl’s efforts were in vain as “the Government’s redoubled discrimination against the sons of Israel” had rendered his father’s business “inadequate to support two families,” causing Yekl to depart for the United States (Yekl 10). Yekl’s attempts at assimilation in Russia did not spare him from damage caused by the pogroms, making him the victim.

In the novella, Jake is enchanted by his vision of assimilation into American society. He believes that he must purge the Jewish culture within himself and adopt what he perceives to the key elements of American culture in order to be considered a true American. An important issue that arises in parallel to this is the fact that Jake’s desperate attempts to distinguish himself as an American-American are futile, according to the Walzer theory. By using Walzer’s essay as a lens text one can conclude that first-generation immigrants in general can never fully be able to adopt a new society and a foreign culture, without retaining at least some of the aspects of their previous society and culture. While Walzer suggests that Yekl can transform himself from a Jewish-American into an American-American, he also acknowledges that the “core” of Jake’s Jewish culture will still be “capable of periodic revival” (Walzer 652). Thus, while it is Jake’s right to commit himself to the right of the hyphen, so much as to become an American-American, fragments of his Jewish culture will remain with him forever.

Language is Jake’s North Star in Yekl, guiding him to assimilation into both Russian and American cultures. As a boy, Yekl learned various words in Russian; this mentality is affirmed when, as a man, Jake pick up on the words he thinks he can use to distinguish himself as an American-American. The final step in Jake’s transformation from victim to victimizer lies within his hostility toward other, less assimilated immigrants; soon he dubs this type of immigrant as a “greenhorn,” showing his superiority to them (Yekl 6). Indeed, in many circumstances, Jake is also found speaking in English so he can intimidate his immigrant friends with his knowledge of the language. Though Cahan tries his best to show that Jake is adopting only a façade of American culture, the immigrants believe it to be real, as does Jake. However, this façade becomes only more apparent to the reader when Jake speaks in his “Yankee” style, showing his bad pronunciations of English words and use of scattered Yiddish; it is highly plausible that Jake will continue to adulterate his English with phrases from Yiddish, or speak with a Yiddish accent. Thus, Jake is not able to, and arguably will never be, able to fully adopt this linguistic aspect of American culture.

In What It Means to Be an American, Walzer states that while it is every citizen’s right to choose to live on the American side of the hyphen, it is also American to embrace your ethnic identity, as well as your culture. He writes that “an ethnic American is someone who can, in principle, live his spiritual life as he chooses, on either side of the hyphen,” meaning that Jake would be just as American if he embraced his Jewish culture while adopting American politics (650). However, this statement also implies that Jake would be American even if he lived completely on the Jewish side of the hyphen, as Gitl had done when she arrived in America. Walzer recognizes that, for Jews, the “price of emancipation was assimilation,” in revolution-era France, but also that America has differed from this ideology by taking in various ethnic groups who may choose to assimilate as they wish (649). Thus, forced assimilation would be against the ideals of the United States.

Evidently, Jake fails to realize that America is not like the Russia he came from. In Russia, the anti-Semitism movement of the late 1800s was partially fueled by fury against the “backwardness of the Jew in adopting the tongue and the manners of [Russia].” The government was asked to ban Jews from schools, trapping them in a cycle of illiteracy and essentially banishing them to the lower ranks of society (“Russian Jew” para. 18). However, in America, Jews were given the opportunity to attend schools and colleges, and Cahan notes that some Jews even paid their way through college by “giving private lessons in English in the tenement houses” (“Russian Jew” para. 18). Indeed, in America, assimilation is not a prerequisite for work or education.

Walzer, in What It Means to Be an American, tries to show that while American-Americans are American, hyphenated Americans (i.e. Jewish-Americans) are also American. Jake tries to be as American as he can, not realizing that being Jewish would also qualify as being American; he does not realize that all the separate ethnic groups in New York City are all American, no matter how much or how little they assimilate. Indeed, even Gitl is American the moment she steps off the boat which brought her to America. Jake’s failure in Yekl to realize this concept of ethnic heterogeneity, this major difference between the culture of his native Russia — the homogeneous culture which allowed for crimes against the Jewish minority — and American culture, make him the victimizer in America; Jake believes that he will be more American if he becomes a nativist, not realizing that he is inflicting the same type of hate onto less-assimilated immigrants as was inflicted upon his people in Russia.

Works Cited
Cahan, Abraham. "The Russian Jew in America." The Atlantic Monthly Vol. LXXXII, July, 1898: 263-287. Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. ISBN: 0486224279

—. Yekl. NY.: Dover Publications, 1970.

Walzer, Michael. "What Does it Mean to Be an "American"?." Social Research 71(2004): 633-654. What It Means to Be an American. ISBN: 1568860250

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