LITR 5831 Seminar in World / Multicultural Literature
American Immigrant Literature


What's special about Jewish American identity and literature?

Jews most successful at gaining economic benefits of immigration and American Dream without giving up ethnic identity.

Problem of remaining chosen people or becoming like everyone else

Can an immigrant group enjoy benefits of America while resisting complete assimilation?

"Model Minority" immigrant groups may do so for a few generations, may enable or empower upward assimilation




sweat shop

English newspaper, dictionary

Jewish stage

socialist magazine in Yiddish

impromptu lecture

1.2 Boston Yiddish

1.2 well-shaped legs, 1.7 magnificent form

1.8 [non-Jewish features] seemed to join the Jewish faith [smile]

1.12 rabbinical Bernstein looks up from his dictionary > 1.13 "America is an educated country

1.17 the debate

1.19 "My grandma's last care it is who can fight best." [Yiddish > comedy]

1.22 Here a Jew is as good as a Gentile.

1.23 "Why don't you look for the educated ones?"

1.24 a Yankee wink, followed by his Semitic smile.

1.28 baseball discussion

[1.36] Just like little children—playing ball! And yet people say America is a smart country. I don't see it."

[1.41] "He thinks that shaving one's mustache makes a Yankee!"

[1.50] Instead of spending your money on fights, dancing, and things like that, would it not be better if you paid it to a teacher?"

[1.51] Rejoice that you keep tormenting your books. Much does he know! Learning, learning, and learning, and still he cannot speak English. I don't learn and yet I speak quicker than you!"

[1.62] At this juncture the boss, a dwarfish little Jew

[1.64]  A wild scramble ensued. . . .  overjoyed by the certainty of employment for at least another day or two, they departed till that hour.

[1.65] "Look at the rush they are making! Just like the locusts of Egypt!" [<Exodus 10]

[1.67]  malicious pleasure which he took in their eagerness and in the demonstration of his power over the men, some of whom he knew to have enjoyed a more comfortable past than himself.

[1.68] "As soon as I get my pay I shall call on the installment man and give him a deposit for a ticket." The prospective ticket was to be for a passage across the Atlantic from Hamburg to New York.

1.69 vision of dark-haired woman with a babe

1.70 not even suspected the existence of a name like Jake, being known to himself and to all Povodye—a town in northwestern Russia—as Yekl or Yekelé.

1.73 The broken Russian learned among the Povodye soldiers he had exchanged for English of a corresponding quality

1.73 shocked by the very notion of seeking employment at his old trade in a city where it is in the hands of Christians, and consequently involves a violation of the Mosaic Sabbath [Saturday].

[1.76] Three years had intervened since he had first set foot on American soil, and the thought of ever having been a Yekl would bring to Jake's lips a smile of patronizing commiseration for his former self. As to his Russian family name, which was Podkovnik, Jake's friends had such rare use for it that by mere negligence it had been left intact.



2.7 "I shall get them* over here and begin a new life." [*"them" = "dark-eyed young woman with a babe," 1.69]

2.9 dense swarms of bedraggled half-naked humanity

2.10 battle for breath

east side

2.10 metropolis of the Ghettos of the world. It is one of the most densely populated spots on the face of the earth—a seething human sea fed by streams, streamlets, and rills of immigration flowing from all the Yiddish-speaking centers of Europe.

[2.11]  Jews from every nook and corner of Russia, Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Roumania; Lithuanian Jews, Volhynian Jews, south Russian Jews, Bessarabian Jews; Jews crowded out of the "pale of Jewish settlement"; Russified Jews expelled from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kieff, or Saratoff;

[cf. melting pot, African American, Trail of Tears]

[2.12] Nor is there a tenement house but harbors in its bosom specimens of all the whimsical metamorphoses wrought upon the children of Israel of the great modern exodus by the vicissitudes of life in this their Promised Land of today.

speaking all sorts of subdialects of the same jargon, thrown pellmell into one social caldron [cf. melting pot]

2.14 sweatshops > dance hall

2.14 Professor Pellner himself, curly hair more than feet like bears

2.15 air of being engaged in hard toil rather than as if they were dancing for amusement. The faces of some of these bore a wondering martyrlike expression

2.16 his strapping figure towered over the circling throng

2.23 a momentary lapse into Yiddish. English was the official language of the academy, where it was broken and mispronounced in as many different ways as there were Yiddish dialects represented in that institution.

2.33 held up his enormous bullet head as if he were bidding defiance to the whole world.

[2.37] Like the majority of the girls of the academy, Mamie's English was a much nearer approach to a justification of its name than the gibberish spoken by the men.

2.50 dividing the remark b/w both jargons

2.52 recurred to her English

2.56 whole figure seemed to be exclaiming, "Dot'sh a kin' a man I am!"

[2.65] "To think of a bit of a flea like that having so much cheek*! Here is America for you!" [*cheek = insolence, impudence, sassiness]




3.2 since he had shifted his abode to New York he carefully avoided all reference to his antecedents.

3.2 The Jewish quarter of the metropolis, which is a vast and compact city within a city, offers its denizens incomparably fewer chances of contact with the English-speaking portion of the population than any of the three separate Ghettos of Boston.

3.2 his present associates took it for granted that he was single

3.4 certain lingering tenderness for his wife . . . From a reality she had gradually become transmuted into a fancy.

[3.4] where a "shister [Yiddish: shoemaker] becomes a mister [gentleman] and a mister a shister," [multilingual wordplay]

3.4 he had lived so much more than three years—so much more, in fact, than in all the twenty-two years of his previous life [American hypermodernity or future orientation accelerates time]

[3.6] Neither Jake nor his wife nor his parents could write even Yiddish, although both he and his old father read fluently the punctuated Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Prayer Book. Their correspondence had therefore to be carried on by proxy,

3.6 the man who wrote Jake's letters had a standing order to reply in the sharpest terms at his command that Yekl did not spend his money on drink; that America was not the land they took it for, where one could "scoop gold by the skirtful"; that Gitl need not fear lest he meant to desert her, and that as soon as he had saved enough to pay her way and to set up a decent establishment she would be sure to get the ticket.

3.7 Jake's scribe was an old Jew who kept a little stand on Pitt Street, . . . Galician quarter [Galicia: Poland / Ukraine]

3.16 The letter had evidently been penned by some one laying claim to Hebrew scholarship and ambitious to impress the New World with it; for it was quite replete with poetic digressions, strained and twisted to suit some quotation from the Bible.

3.26 "It is your father who has been freed; may he have a bright paradise." [death of Jake’s father]

3.28 His native home came back to him with a vividness which it had not had in his mind for a long time.

3.35 his heart writhed with pity and with the acutest pangs of homesickness.

3.35 As the Hebrew words of the Sanctification of the Sabbath resounded in Jake's ears, in his father's senile treble, he could see his gaunt figure swaying over a pair of Sabbath loaves. It is Friday night.

3.36 heart-wringing consciousness of being an orphan, and his soul was filled with a keen sense of desolation and self-pity. And thereupon every thing around him—the rows of gigantic tenement houses, the hum and buzz of the scurrying pedestrians, the jingling horse cars—all suddenly grew alien and incomprehensible to Jake.

3.36 Poor mother! He will not forget her—But what is the Italian playing on that organ, anyhow? Ah, it is the new waltz! By the way, this is Monday and they are dancing at Joe's now and he is not there.

3.36 "I will begin a new life!" he vowed to himself.

3.37 His heart went out to Gitl and her environment, and he was seized with a yearning tenderness that made him feel like crying. "I would not exchange her little finger for all the American ladies,"

3.38 about to say his prayers. Not having said them for nearly three years, however,

[4.1]  Immigration Bureau of Ellis Island.

[4.2]  his heart had sunk at the sight of his wife's uncouth and un-American appearance.

voluminous wig of a pitch-black hue

wickedness of displaying her natural hair

naturally dark of complexion

resemblance to a squaw

[4.5] "Yekl!" she screamed out in a piteous high key, as if crying for mercy.

4.6 The contrast between Gitl and Jake was so striking that the officer wanted to make sure—partly as a matter of official duty and partly for the fun of the thing—that the two were actually man and wife.

[4.7] "Oi [woe, alas] a lamentation upon me! He shaves his beard!" Giti ejaculated to herself as she scrutinized her husband.

4.10 kisses imparted the taste of mutual estrangement to both. In Jake's case the sensation was quickened by the strong steerage odors which were emitted by Gitl's person, and he involuntarily recoiled.

4.16  Jake the Yankee, with this bonnetless, wigged, dowdyish little greenhorn by his side!

4.17 She, too, could not get herself to realize that this stylish young man—shaved and dressed as in Povodye is only some young nobleman—was Yekl,

4.19 "Here everything is so different."

[4.21] "They don't wear wigs here,"

[4.25] "Here one does not wear even a kerchief."

4.30 made her look like an Italian woman of Mulberry Street on Sunday

4.35 her first ride on the day of rest.

4.36 so great was the impression which his dashing manner and his English produced on Gitl, that for some time it relieved her mind and she even forgot to be shocked by the sight of her husband handling coin on the Sabbath.

[4.40] "Don't say varimess," he corrected her complaisantly; "here it is called dinner."



5.1 Gitl's second Wednesday in the New World.

little front room which served the quadruple purpose of kitchen, dining room, sitting room, and parlor

 "in her own hair, like a Gentile woman."

5.2 I'll get her a hat that will make a Fifth Avenue lady of her

5.4 mimesis of woman alone

5.10 her own Yekl and Jake the stranger were by degrees merging themselves into one undivided being

[5.11]  It flashed upon her mind to call upon some "good Jew" to pray for the return of his favor, or to seek some old Polish beggar woman who could prescribe a love potion. But then, alas! who knows whether there are in this terrible America any good Jews or beggar women with love potions at all!

5.12 Here everybody says she is green. What an ugly word to apply to people!

[5.14] Meanwhile Jake sat at his machine merrily pushing away at a cloak and singing to it some of the popular American songs of the day.

5.18 Fanny's embarrassment was much greater than Jake's.

5.19 But can it be that he is doomed for life? No! no! he would revolt, conscious at the same time that there was really no escape. "Ah, may she be killed, the horrid greenhorn!" he would gasp to himself in a paroxysm of despair. And then he would bewail his lost youth, and curse all Russia for his premature marriage.

5.20 take comfort in the fact of her being a model housewife, undiverted from her duties by any thoughts of balls or picnics.

5.21 Little Joey—for such was Yosselé's name now

[5.62] "Don't speak English. She'll t'ink I don' know vot you’re speakin'," he besought her, in accents which implied intimacy between the two of them and a common aloofness from Gitl.



[6.6] "What is the matter? Speak out! Are you afraid to tell me?" he insisted.

[6.37] "No wonder he does hate you, seeing you in that horrid rag, which makes a grandma of you. Drop it, I tell you! Drop it so that no survivor nor any refugee is left of it.

[6.40]  In America one must take care not to displease a husband. Here one is today in New York and tomorrow in Chicago; do you understand? As if there were any shame or decency here! A father is no father, a wife, no wife—not'ing!

[7.1] It was not until after supper time that Gitl could see Mrs. Kavarsky; for the neighbor's husband was in the installment business [bill collector], and she generally spent all day in helping him with his collections as well as canvassing for new customers.

[7.9] "Dot's right! When you talk like a man I like you. And now sit still and listen to what an older person and a business woman has to tell you.

[7.19] All at once Mrs. Kavarsky bit her lip, her countenance brightening up with a sudden inspiration. At the next instant she made a lunge at Gitl's head, and off went the kerchief. Gitl started with a cry, at the same moment covering her head with both hands.

[7.20] "Take off your hands! Take them off at once, I say!" the other shrieked, her eyes flashing fire and her feet performing an Irish jig.

[7.21] Gitl obeyed for sheer terror.

[7.24] At last, when all was ready and she found herself adorned with a pair of rich side bangs, she was taken in front of the mirror, and ordered to hail the transformation with joy. She viewed herself with an unsteady glance, as if her own face struck her as unfamiliar and forbidding. However, the change pleased her as much as it startled her.

[7.49] Her unprecedented show of pugnacity took him aback.