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This landmark work presaged the so-called literature of the proletarian thirties, and is the quintessential novel of poor Jews. Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money tells the story of Jewish poverty in one ghetto, that of New York. The same story could have been told in hundreds of other ghettoes scattered all over the world, especially in Europe, prior to the rise of Nazism. The book went through fifteen printings upon its publication in 1930 and was translated into every major language in the western world.
The appearance of the book at this time is ironic as well as timely. In his introduction to the 1935 printing, Gold himself offers the reason why: “It has become necessary now in America to fight against fascist lies. Recently, groups of anti-Semitic demagogies have appeared in this country. They are like Hitler, telling the hungry American people that capitalism is Jewish and that an attack on the Jews is the best way of restoring prosperity. What folly. What criminal deception and bloody fraud. And there are signs that this oldest of swindles will grow in America.” Sixty years after this utterance one can say that Gold was indeed prophetic.
But the politics of the age—this or any other—dissolve in the face of a brilliant set of vignettes about growing up on the Lower East Side during the heyday of Jewish life there in the 1920s. Here we find a world of struggle—Jews against Gentiles, Jews against each other, a universe of gangsters and rabbis, men and women, children and adults—all told in the first person vernacular of a boy growing to manhood dedicated to making clear his love of a long-suffering mother. The races and religions may differ, but the themes are universal.
Michael Gold's fictionalized autobiography is the powerful, historical story of Jewish immigrants living on the lower East side of Manhattan during the first two decades of this century.