Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America — in 1885 — with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars…
And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power and the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance.
Thus begins the compelling first paragraphs of “The Rise of David Levinsky” by Abraham Cahan. This novel, written in 1917, is one of the earliest and one of the most notable pieces of Jewish immigrant fiction.
David Levinsky narrates his own tale, starting with his childhood in Antomir, Russia, as a Talmudic scholar who is physically abused by his teachers. When his beloved mother dies as a result of a violent attack, he commits to sailing to America.
In David’s words, Cahan eloquently describes the immigrant’s feelings upon reaching American land:
When the discoverers of America saw land at last they fell on their knees and a hymn of thanksgiving burst from their souls. The scene, which is one of the most thrilling in history, repeats itself in the heart of every immigrant as he comes in sight of the American shores.
David pounds the pavement looking for work, living from day to day, often going hungry and living in substandard housing. He hates being referred to as a “greenhorn,” and makes every effort to learn to write and speak English.
Despite the initial hardships, everything about America fascinates him, expressed in one of my favorite lines in the book:
It takes a country like America to produce butchers who look and speak like noblemen.
David ultimately finds work in a sweatshop. He faces a turning point when he is about to enroll in college and learn a profession, but due to an accident of fate, ends up following the road he never thought he would take: establishing his own garment business.
While it doesn’t happen overnight, the ingenuity David exhibits in trying to establish his business makes for absorbing reading. He resorts to whatever means he can to succeed, including lying, cheating and stealing. Despite his flaws, he is a likeable character and the reader roots for him to come through.
David’s success has a cost, though. Not only does he turn away from Judaism, but the money is never enough. There is always that elusive next level of success:
I was now worth more than one hundred thousand dollars, and the sum did not seem to be anything to rejoice over. My fortune was not climbing rapidly enough. I was almost tempted to stamp my foot and snarlingly urge it on.
In addition, he is lonely. Love eludes him throughout his life, other than passing fancies and affairs with women he cannot have.
The author writes with such familiarity with the immigrant experience and the garment industry that I had to stop and remind myself that this was a novel and not a memoir. While Cahan was indeed a Russian immigrant, he made his living not in the garment industry but as a founder and first editor of the Forward, the first Yiddish daily newspaper for Americans (Forverts in Yiddish), which became the voice of Jewish immigrants and the precursor to today’s Jewish American newspapers.
This novel, with its eloquent and expressive phrasing, was written by one whose English was a second language, making this book even more of an achievement. This is the quintessential rags-to-riches story that will resonate in your mind long after you’ve read the last word.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)