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New York University Press
World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made / Edition 1

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made / Edition 1

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814736852
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2005
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 768
Sales rank: 263,883
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Irving Howe (1920-1993) played a pivotal role in American intellectual life for over five decades, from the 1940s to the 1990s. Best known for World of Our Fathers , Howe also won acclaim for his prodigious output of illuminating essays on American culture and as an indefatigable promoter of democratic socialism. He was the founding editor of Dissent , the journal he edited for nearly forty years.

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English and Theatre and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of several books, including Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970


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The year 1881 marks a turning point in the history of the Jews as decisive as that of 70 A.D., when Titus's legions burned the Temple at Jerusalem, or 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the expulsion from Spain. On March 1, 1881, Alexander II, czar of Russia, was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists; the modest liberalism of his regime came to an end; and within several weeks a wave of pogroms, inspired mostly by agents of the new government, spread across Russia. For the Jews packed into the Pale* and overflowing its boundaries, the accession of Alexander III signified not only immediate disaster but also the need for a gradual reordering of both their inner life and their relationship to a country in which Jews had been living for hundreds of years. The question had now to be asked: should the east European Jews continue to regard themselves as permanent residents of the Russian empire or should they seriously consider the possibility of a new exodus?

There had already been a trickle of Jewish emigration to America — 7,500 in the years between 1820 and 1870 and somewhat more than 40,000 in the 1870's. But the idea of America as a possible locale for collective renewal had not yet sunk deeply into the consciousness of the east European Jews. During the reign of Alexander II many of them had experienced modest hopes of winning equal rights as citizens. Others hoped to persuade the less benighted agents of Russian autocracy that the Jews merited a share in its prospective enlightenment. By the 1880's that hope was badly shaken, perhaps destroyed.

At no time could the life of the Jews in Russia have been described as comfortable. With the caprice of absolutism, the monarchs had alternated between prolonged repression and intervals of relaxation. They had frequently believed that toleration of other religions might bring a risk of disloyalty to the supreme truth of Christianity, and the more fanatical among them had tried to "convert" the Jews through coercion and force. Rarely were the Jews able to ease their guard against blows from above and below, bureaucrats and folk, and never could they see themselves as citizens like all others. Their role as pariahs, the stiff-necked enemies of Christ, was fixed both in official doctrine and popular legend. Repression took the forms of economic harassment and legal humiliation, sometimes pogroms and accusations of ritual blood murder. At intervals these policies would be eased a little, and the Jews would be allowed, as part of a tendency toward Westernization, to settle in outlying southern and western districts. With the conquest of new territories in the south during the middle of the eighteenth century and the partition of Poland a few decades later, the number of Jews under Russian domination greatly increased. For a time Catherine II welcomed them as merchants and traders who might stimulate the economy, but soon — in what seems a constant alternation between tightening and loosening of the chains of power — her exercise in tolerance came to an end.

Once the Holy Alliance sealed the defeat of Napoleon and stabilized Europe as a concert of reaction, the conditions of the Russian Jews, as indeed of almost all Russians, sadly deteriorated. The reign of Nicholas I, from 1825 to 1855, proved to be a nightmare. Over six hundred antiJewish decrees were enacted, ranging from expulsions from villages in which Jews had traditionally resided to a heavy censorship of Yiddish and Hebrew books; from meddling with the curriculums of Jewish schools to a conscription that tore Jewish children away from parents, often at ages between twelve and eighteen, for periods of up to twentyfive years. In his memoirs Alexander Herzen has unforgettably portrayed a convoy of conscripted Jewish children:

"You see, they have collected a crowd of cursed little Jewish boys of eight or nine years old" [a Russian officer tells Herzen in a village in the province of Vyatka]. "... they just die off like flies. A Jew boy, you know, is such a frail, weakly creature ... he is not used to tramping in the mud for ten hours a day and eating biscuit ... being among strangers, no father nor mother nor petting; well, they cough and cough until they cough themselves into their graves."

... it was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten....

Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy, soldiers' overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks. ... And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves.

The acknowledged aim of Nicholas's measures was the destruction of the Jewish community as a social and religious body. One of his secret decrees explained, "The purpose in educating Jews is to bring about their gradual merging with the Christian nationalities and to uproot those superstitious and harmful prejudices which are instilled by the teachings of the Talmud." Through the following century, at least until a more scientific precision was developed in the art of murder, the Nicolaitan persecutions would leave a shudder vibrating in the minds of the Jews, with stories passed from generation to generation, even to children of immigrants in America, about little boys forcibly converted by Russian officers or accepting a death of martyrdom rather than yield to such conversion.

No wonder that Alexander II, whom Disraeli called "the kindliest prince who has ever ruled Russia," aroused enthusiasm among the Jews. Alexander II reduced the period of military service to five years; opened the doors of the universities to some Jews; permitted Jewish businessmen to travel in parts of Russia from which they had been barred. Under his reign the forty million serfs of Russia were freed, though the economic consequences for both the peasants and that narrow stratum of Jews who had occupied a precarious position between landowner and peasants were by no means completely advantageous. But once this weak effort at official liberalism collapsed and the pogroms of 1881 left the Jews stunned and bleeding, it was no longer possible, even for the Russified middle-class Jewish intellectuals, to hold out much hope for Fabian solutions. Though not as bestial as Nicholas, Alexander III pursued a steady anti-Jewish policy. Neither stability nor peace, well-being nor equality, was possible for the Jews of Russia.

The World of the Shtetl

For several hundred years this culture had flourished in eastern Europe. Bound together by firm spiritual ties, by a common language, and by a sense of destiny that often meant a sharing of martyrdom, the Jews of eastern Europe were a kind of nation yet without recognized nationhood. Theirs was both a community and a society: internally a community, a ragged kingdom of the spirit, and externally a society, impoverished and imperiled.

The central trait of this culture was an orientation toward otherworldly values — though this may be too simple a way of describing it. For the world of the east European Jews, at least in its most serious and "ideal" manifestations, did not accept the Western distinction between worldly and otherworldly. Kierkegaard's dictum that "between God and man there is an infinite, yawning, qualitative difference" might have struck them as a reasonable account of their actual condition, but not as a statement of necessary or inescapable limits. In order to survive, the east European Jews had to abide by the distinction between worldly and otherworldly, but they refused to recognize it as just or inevitable. In their celebration of the Sabbath and in the sharp line they drew between the Sabbath and the rest of the week, they tacitly acknowledged that they had to live by the ways of the world; this was the price of exile and dispersion. Ideally, however, the worldly and otherworldly should be one — here on earth. Every Jew would have recognized immediately the symbolic rightness in the refusal of Reb Shloyme, a character in Peretz's drama Di goldene keyt ("The Golden Chain"), to accept "the week," those six mundane days that lie scattered beneath the glory of the Sabbath.

The life of the east European Jews was anything but an idyl. Given the pressures from without and a slow stagnation within, this world was bound to contain large portions of the ignorant, provincial, and even corrupt. One of the motivating forces behind the communal and political movements that sprang up during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, as well as of the Yiddish poetry and fiction written at the same time, was a desire to stir the blood of a society that had gone sluggish, to cleanse the life of a people that had suffered too long from isolation, poverty, and violence.

Locked into a backward economy, the Jews of eastern Europe continued to act and think primarily in premodern, prebourgeois terms. The struggle for livelihood, unending and rarely successful, occupied much time — it had to. But never was it regarded by the acknowledged spokesmen of the Jews as the primary reason for existence. Scholarship was, above all else, honored among the Jews — scholarship not as "pure" activity, not as intellectual release, but as the pathway, sometimes treacherous, to God. A man's prestige, authority, and position depended to a considerable extent on his learning. Those who were learned sat at the eastern wall of the synagogue, near the Holy Ark. Women often became breadwinners so that their husbands could devote themselves to study, while householders thought it their duty, indeed privilege, to support precocious sons-in-law studying the Holy Word.

There was another side, of course. Scholarship often degenerated into abysmal scholasticism. Intellect could be reduced to a barren exercise indistinctions that had long ago lost their reality. Manual labor was frequently regarded as a mark of social disgrace. Among the more orthodox, modern thought met with furious resistance: how could the works of man measure against the Word of God? Secular books, by the early or mid-nineteenth century, began to be smuggled into the yeshivas and read on the sly, their forbidden contents eagerly examined by students as they chanted the Talmudic singsong. A few rabbis were ready to receive the new learning of the West, but in the main the rabbinate felt that any large infiltration of Western thought would be its undoing; and it was right.

The traditional world is lovingly summoned by a nineteenth-century Jewish writer as he describes a visit to a heder (school):

Soon a poorly clad couple entered, the man carrying in his arms a young boy of about six, wrapped in a talit [prayer shawl]. Both father and mother were weeping with joy, grateful to God who had preserved them that they might witness this beautiful moment. Having extended a cordial welcome to the newcomers, the melamed [teacher] took the hero of the celebration into his arms and stood him upon a table. Afterwards the boy was seated on a bench and was the first to receive cake, nuts, raisins and dainties of which the happy mother had brought along an apron-full. The teacher then sat down near the youngster, placed a card with a printed alphabet before him and, taking a long pointer, began the first lesson by blessing his newly-initiated pupil that he may be raised for the study of Torah, marriage, and good deeds.

And here, in quite another voice, is a report, written in 1894, of a Jewish school in Vitebsk:

Our Talmud Torahs are filthy rooms, crowded from nine in the morning until nine in the evening with pale, starved children. These remain in this contaminated atmosphere for twelve hours at a time and see only their bent, exhausted teachers. ... Their faces are pale and sickly, and their bodies evidently not strong. In parties of twenty or thirty, and at times more, they all repeat some lesson aloud after their instructor. He who has not listened to the almost absurd commentaries of the ignorant melamed cannot even imagine how little the children gain from such instruction.

Which of these accounts is the truth, which can we believe? There is no simple answer, for each summons a portion and only a portion of the truth, so that the two qualify and complement one another.

The world of the east European Jews was colored throughout by religious emotion, yet it was not a theocracy: by no means were the rabbis undisputed rulers. It was a world dominated by an uneasy alliance between a caste of the learned and the somewhat wealthier merchants. In their formal value system, the Jews gave precedence to the learned, but as with any other formal system, this precedence was honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. The closer this world came to modern life, the more did wealth challenge and usurp the position of learning. There was never, it is true, a formal dispossession of learning, but often enough there smoldered a subterranean rivalry between learning and wealth that could suddenly flare into the open. What preserved a degree of social fluidity was that learning, at least potentially, was open to everyone and not the exclusive property of any group or caste.

Socially this world had not yet split into sharply defined and antagonistic classes. By the 1880's some Jews had settled in the larger cities, such as Warsaw and Lodz; within the next few decades the number of Jews moving from the shtetl to urban concentrations increased sharply. The beginnings of a Jewish proletariat started to appear in the cities, though in the main it consisted not of factory workers but of artisans employed in small shops. Strikes broke out, class feeling hardened. But in the shtetl one could hardly speak of fully formed rival classes, since few Jews owned any massive means of production and fewer still sold their labor power. Often the relations between the social strata of the shtetl came to little more than a difference between the poor and the hopelessly poor. Only if the pressures of the external world had been suddenly removed would the suppressed economic conflicts within the shtetl have reached full expression. As it was, the shtetl nestled in the crevices of a backward agricultural economy where Jews, often prohibited from ownership of land, had to live by trading, artisanship, and their wits. But if, strictly speaking, the shtetl did not have articulated social classes, it was still far from what we would now regard as a democratic community. Distinctions of caste were urgently maintained, through learning, economic position, and the concept of yikhes, which pertains to family status and pride.

Gross misapprehensions about the nature of the shtetl have flourished since its destruction by modern totalitarianism. The shtetl was not a village — the term east European Jews used for a village was dorf. The shtetl was a town, usually a small one; it sometimes had cobbled streets; it occasionally had imposing structures; and it rarely was picturesque. It consisted, writes a portraitist, of

a jumble of wooden houses clustered higgledy-piggledy about a market-place ... as crowded as a slum. ... The streets ... are as tortuous as a Talmudic argument. They are bent into question marks and folded into parentheses. They run into culs-de-sac like a theory arrested by a fact; they ooze off into lanes, alleys, back yards. ... [At the center is] the market-place, with its shops, booths, tables, stands, butchers' blocks. Hither come daily, except during the winter, the peasants and peasant women from many miles around, bringing their livestock and vegetables, their fish and hides, their wagonloads of grain, melons, parsley, radishes, and garlic. They buy, in exchange, the city produce which the Jews import, dry goods, hats, shoes, boots, lamps, oil, spades, mattocks, and shirts. The tumult of the market-place ... is one of the wonders of the world.

Because the shtetl lived in constant expectation of external attack, all the inner tendencies making for disintegration were kept in check. The outer world, the world of the gentiles and the worldlings, meant hostility, sacrilege, brute force: the threat of the fist against the defenseless Word. This condition of permanent precariousness gave the east European Jews a conscious sense of being at a distance from history, from history as such and history as a conception of the Western world. Living in an almost timeless proximity with the mythical past and the redeeming future, with Abraham's sacrifice of his beloved son to a still more beloved God and the certain appearance of a cleansing Messiah — for heaven was real, not a useful myth, and each passing day brought one nearer to redemption — the Jews could not help feeling that history was a little ridiculous, an often troublesome trifling of the gentile era. Once the shtetl began to crumble under alien pressures, the sense of history, suddenly rising to acute consciousness, became an obsession; or more accurately, the modern idea of time as the very stuff of life which can never be held or held back, was absorbed into a faith that had always been addressed to eternity, so that certain of the political movements among the east European Jews, notably Zionism and socialism, received nutriment from the very faith they had begun to displace.


Excerpted from "World of Our Fathers"
by .
Copyright © 1976 Irving Howe.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction by Morris Dickstein,
1 Origins,
2 Departure and Arrival,
3 The Early Years, 1881–1900,
4 Disorder and Early Progress,
5 Slum and Shop,
6 The Way They Lived Then,
7 The Restlessness of Learning,
8 Growing Up in the Ghetto,
9 Jewish Labor, Jewish Socialism,
10 Breakup of the Left,
11 Getting into American Politics,
12 American Responses,
13 The Yiddish Word,
14 The Yiddish Theatre,
15 The Scholar-Intellectuals,
16 The Yiddish Press,
17 Journeys Outward,
18 At Ease in America?,
The Suburbs: New Ways to Live,
Epilogue: Questions upon Questions,
Image Gallery,
Reference Notes,
Glossary of Yiddish Terms,
Bibliographical Notes,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Irving Howe has written a great book . . . a marvelous narrative.”
-The New York Times Book Review


World of Our Fathers is a book for Jew and non-Jew, for immigrants and native-born Americans. It is a book for all people.”
-Chicago Tribune Book World

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World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
bnation on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I'm giving this book only two stars because even though the title includes the phrase "The Journey of the East European Jews to America" there appears to be nothing about any place other than New York, and possibly some other U.S. cities. A great many Jews emigrated to Canada (particularly Montreal), Mexico, Argentina, etc. All "America".The first section, describing conditions in Eastern Europe, motivations for emigrating, and the journeys through Europe and across the Atlantic, is great. That's only about 50 pages out of a 700 page book.
miriamparker on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Thank you, Irving Howe, for doing lots of research so that I could read about it.