American Novelists 20th Century
by Dr. Gerhard Falk
From the time of the first volume of Yiddish poetry published in America in 1877 to the end of the Yiddish era in about 1975, Jewish-American writers always exhibited a strong interest in radical and hence secular ideas. Yiddish writers expressed themselves in poetry, in the theater, in novels, in newspapers and in intellectual books, papers and pamphlets. Throughout these five media ran, for the most part, a secular attitude most visible in the novel.
The first Jewish novels written in America were written by immigrants. This was true, not because there were no Jews here before the last two decades of the nineteenth century, but because those Jews who had come here before 1881 were very few, had arrived in the 17th century from Spain and Portugal and in the nineteenth century from Germany and had rapidly assimilated the majority American culture. However, 1881 marked a major turning point in Jewish history. On March 1 of that year the Russian Czar, Alexander II, was assassinated. When his son, Alexander III, ascended the Russian throne persecution of the Jews became the policy of the Russian government and led to the prompt immigration of millions of Jews to America. These millions of Jews spoke Yiddish so that it is not at all surprising that the first American Jewish writers included in that migration wrote in that language.
Thus, the Jewish writers of that day brought European Jewishness to America. Among these was Morris Winshevsky who promoted socialism but had very little Jewish content in his poetry. Instead, Winshevsky was a follower of the Jewish enlightenment, called Haskalah, a movement with a distinct secular emphasis. In fact, Winshevsky represented the revolt against religion at the end of the 19th century when he wrote: "For me.my disbelief and hatred toward all faiths reached a high point of fanaticism.My greatest delight was to prove that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, that Joshuah did not cause the heavens to stand still."
There were of course innumerable other authors but only a few stand out as major contributors to Yiddish writing in the U.S.A. There was Morris Rosenfeld, prime representative of the so-called "sweatshop" poets, who reflected the Jewish radicalism of his day. That radicalism was the reaction to the misery of living in immigrant slums, of the exploitation of the Jewish workers, and the desperation of the Jewish masses. It was a radicalism which rejected the religion of Europe and sought to rely on the politics of this world instead. Although Rosenfeld was translated into English, his following in the English language was only temporary so that his fame rests finally on the Yiddish following he was able to attract. He too was an agnostic.
The most important Yiddish writer of the early twentieth century however, was Abraham Cahan. Although he spoke Yiddish better than English, Cahan succeeded in publishing The Chosen People and The Rise of David Levinsky in English in 1917. This book has been called "the most important novel written by a Jewish immigrant". In it Levinsky becomes an American millionaire at the cost of his Jewish heritage and upon first becoming a thoroughgoing secularist. "Spencer and Darwin replace the Torah, Dickens and Thackeray the Talmud." Cahan depicts the emptiness of Levinsky's life despite his rise to money and fame.
Other American Jewish writers who wrote in the Yiddish or the English idiom were Sidney Nyburg, Anzela Yezierska, James Oppenheim, Samuel Ornitz and Ludwig Lewisohn who was born in the United States, the son of German Jewish immigrants. All these dealt with the fate of the immigrants. All of these rejected religion and sought to show how pragmatism and realism were far superior in solving man's problems than belief in anything supernatural.
During the depression of the 1930's American Jewish writers, now mostly born in the U.S.A., were very much affected by the discontinuity of European Judaism with American Judaism. Except for the 1978 Nobel prize winner in literature Isaac Bashevich Singer, who was born in Poland in 1904, these writers all wrote in English. Singer, although he wrote in Yiddish, was published in English so that his work is known to almost all Americans in the latter idiom.
Except for Ludwig Lewisohn and Meyer Levin, who defended Jewishness if not Judaism, these writers all rejected Jewish tradition. Instead, these writers leaned toward the political "left" and viewed their Jewishness as a secular condition. Nelson Algren in Somebody in Boots, Albert Halper in The Foundry, Isadore Schneider in From the Kingdom of Necessity and many others viewed socialism as the answer to the Jewish problem both here and abroad and disdained religion entirely. Demanding a future free of tradition writers such as Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, or Charles Reznikoff in By the Waters of Manhattan all believe that Marxism, not Judaism, is the inevitable answer to the degradations and hardships of the immigrant slums.
The writer Paul Goodman, whom the historian Irving Howe called a "Jewish intellectual alienated to the point of complete reduction, " thought that the fellowship of all humans is enhanced by the Jewish tradition and that the fully Jewish is regarded as the fully human. Judaism as a religion or as a separate experience is hardly credited by Goodman.
Added to these novelists there were in the first part of the 20th century Jewish theologians who also strove to distance theology from the European tradition. Kaufman Kohler, a reform Rabbi wrote Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered in 1918 and in 1934 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a representative of the conservative movement in Judaism published his monumental Judaism as a Civilization.
Not only did these rabbis disconnect American Judaism from European Judaism, they also redefined the God concept. Thus, Kaplan presents God as "a chronologically variable social idea, " or as a "struggling ordering force of nature."
Thus, after the second world war, i.e., after 1945, a vast number of Jewish - American writers inundated the literature of the United States and have kept this up until the end of the century.