Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto

Abraham Cahan

I initially hesitated to give this book four stars, for the simple reason that Abraham Cahan's prose is rather stiff — understandably, given that Cahan learned English in his twenties and, even then, wrote primarily in Yiddish. Perhaps this explains why his works of fiction, including the short novel Yekl (1896) and the short story collection The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), presented here in one volume, have not enjoyed quite the same level of acclaim as those by other realist writers of his time, such as Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells. But if Cahan's prose falls short of the more graceful writing of his contemporaries, his stories more than make up for it with their intelligence, gentle humor, and wonderful insider's perspective on the experience of the Jewish immigrant in late 19th-century New York.

Cahan's stories revolve around the trials and triumphs of various fictional inhabitants of the Lower East Side (referred to in the book as the "New York Ghetto"), all of them Jewish immigrants who fled from poverty or persecution in Europe to find freedom and fortune — or to sink even further — in America. An immigrant and socialist leader, who for a time supported himself by working in a factory, Cahan transports the reader back in time and into the tenements, sweatshops, and synagogues which still fascinate New Yorkers and visitors alike. For anyone with a particular interest in this chapter of American history, the first-hand experiences reflected in Cahan's stories make them mandatory reading.

However, these stories are much more than historical documents, especially at a time when immigration is still a major political issue and a key part of the national conversation. The experiences of Cahan's fictional immigrants still resonate, especially those depicted in the novel which opens the collection, Yekl. The title character finds himself caught between the kind of man that he has been and the kind of man that he wants to be: an assimilated American, one who has melted into the pot. His wife Gitl and their boarder Bernstein are a different type of immigrant — they are squares in a patchwork quilt, who slowly become accustomed to American ways while retaining Jewish cultural traditions — and Yekl (or Jake, as he prefers to be known) finds himself in conflict not with the larger American society, but with Gitl and Bernstein, the "greenhorns" who he feels are holding back his own assimilation into that society. Jake's dislike of unassimilated immigrants and his pride in his own Americanization are ironic, given his heavily accented English, his sweatshop job, and the fact that he rarely ventures beyond the borders of the Lower East Side. He considers himself a "true Yankee" and looks down on those who are not, but his position in society and his anxiety about assimilation are reflective of the flimsy nature of the definition of a real American. Is Jake a "true Yankee"? Are Gitl and Bernstein? Or neither, or both? And when Jake makes the fateful decision to put a large part of his immigrant past behind him, does he really stand to gain more than he loses?

A similar unease about the pace of acculturation and the difficulty of holding on to Jewish values — or of letting them go — disrupts the lives of the characters in "The Imported Bridegroom," in which a devout man struggles with the new ideas and changed behavior of his intended son-in-law, while his daughter, who encourages the young man in his endeavors, finds herself, like Jake, losing her grip on her vision of an ideal American life. The central figure of "A Providential Match" runs the risk of getting his hopes dashed in a romantic situation after both he and the family of his beloved experience drastic and rapid changes in their respective circumstances as a result of either immigrating to America or remaining in Europe. In these situations, and in those experienced by the heroes of Cahan's other stories, assimilation is desired by immigrants and is often a source of intense pride, but it is also accompanied by unexpected tensions and pitfalls which the immigrants find themselves forced to navigate, with their varying levels of success often dictated by factors beyond their control. The stories of these characters remind the present-day reader, living in a society which seems to demand rapid assimilation from its newest waves of immigrants, that the process of "becoming American" has rarely been simple and straightforward.

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