Rachel's Random Recommendation #18: Cahan Rise of David Levinsky (1917) by Abraham Cahan

You may not have heard of Abraham Cahan, but his novel about a Russian-Jewish immigrant's rise through America's class system at the turn of the 20th century is still relevant today.

I included David Levinsky in my Intro to American Literature syllabus several years ago because, each time I read it, this book forced me to think about a range of issues like religious vs. national identity, political ideology vs. practical experience, and integration/assimilation into a wholly new kind of society.

Briefly, David Levinsky sails to America in search of what so many others were also looking for: freedom, safety (from pogroms and other violent visitations on Jewish villages), and a new life. Beginning at the bottom as a street vendor in the overcrowded tenement district of the Lower East Side, Levinsky eventually works his way up in the garment industry until he's both wealthy and respected. Along the way, he sheds many of his Old World ways and neglects his religion. All is not well, however, since many of the Jews who come over after him scorn his money and position and instead argue for socialist causes, like unionization and the improvement of working conditions, something New Yorkers had been thinking about a lot since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

As in Sister Carrie, Levinsky is left at the end of the novel rich but lonely, wondering what the point was of working so hard to reinvent himself, only to find himself thinking more and more about his past and the parts of his identity that he had neglected or ignored.

I was drawn to this book in part because, like Cahan himself, my great-grandparents came to America at the beginning of the great wave of immigration that stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s. While they spoke mostly Yiddish even after having lived in America for years, they insisted that their children assimilate fully into the new culture. And yet, religion was still a major part of their lives, for it reminded them of the traditions in which they were brought up. It was one of the few links to the past.

Cahan himself became a major voice in American letters, writing in Yiddish and English and starting the Jewish Daily Forward, still in print today. And if you're thinking that this title sounds suspiciously familiar, you're right- Cahan was borrowing from William Dean Howells, author of The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), another major American novel. So go read David Levinsky and enjoy. It's good stuff.

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