LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 4 - Winter 2006
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Abraham Cahan’s Vilna and the Roots of ‘Litvak’ Realism
Patrick Chura is assistant professor of English at the University of Akron. His book Vital Contact: Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Herman Melville to Richard Wright, was published by Routledge in 2005.
“When I think back to my first years I remember Podberezy, a small town almost twenty miles from Vilna in Lithuania where I was born on a Saturday, the seventeenth day of Tammuz in the summer of 1860.” 1
“Gradually I arrived at the conclusion that the power of realistic art arises from the pleasure we derive from recognizing the truth as it is mirrored by art.” 2
During his lifetime, Jewish-American writer Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) was probably best known for his more than fiftyyear career as editor and cofounder of the Jewish Daily Forward, a highly successful Yiddish newspaper of socialist outlook that, under Cahan’s direction, became a mainstay of immigrant communities in eleven major cities from the 1890s onward.3 Cahan’s other career, of shorter duration, but perhaps more remarkable for a nonnative speaker of English, was as an author of stories and novels – fiction derived from his own experience, written in his adopted American idiom, and set in Jewish ghettos of both New York and Eastern Europe. Upon publication of his first novel, Yekl, in 1896, Cahan was praised by William Dean Howells as a “new star of realism... a writer of foreign birth who will do honor to American letters.” 4 Fulfilling Howells’s prophecy, Cahan published The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto in 1898, a novel of revolutionary Russia entitled The White Terror and the Red in 1905, and what many now consider the quintessential American immigrant novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which capped his fiction-writing career in 1917.
Like the more famous American-born realist writers of his day such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, Cahan’s fiction was known for its objective representations of a social landscape that included the sordid underside of American urban life. As an immigrant writer, Cahan’s special focus was the teeming polyglot population in the ghettos and tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. The uniqueness of his stories stems in part from their often humorous attention to the “low life” of New York – what Howells termed “the ugly delights, as well as the beautiful” 5 – along with their convincing portrayals of the thought processes and daily spiritual struggles of recent immigrants. As Cahan humanized the downtrodden and gave substance to their impoverished surroundings, he furthered the development of American realism as an artistic genre and laid bare a fascinating social stratum about which most nativeborn Americans of the period knew little.
Much of the psychological complexity in Cahan’s intensely realistic “local color” is rooted in cross-cultural analysis, with observations drawn from the author’s first-hand knowledge of the tensions and dilemmas of displaced newcomers in confrontation with modern America. Especially in The Rise of David Levinsky, revealing comparisons between American and Eastern European customs and behaviors proliferate, and they are handled in a sensitive manner that accepts the need for immigrant assimilation while simultaneously registering the pains and emotional costs of such adaptation. With the acute discernment of an outsider, for example, Cahan’s David Levinsky describes such negative traits as “the unsmiling smile” of assimilated Americans and the “scurry and hustle” of the American city, along with the more appealing “confidence and energy” of its people and their “larger ambitions and wider scopes” (63) in comparison to the possibilities of his former life. In exchange for America’s blessings, however, the immigrant feels isolation and a poignant loss of tradition: “There is no pity here, no hospitality” (66). Though Levinsky experiences brutal race hatred in Europe, his appraisal of his adopted culture is more scathing: “America did seem to be the most cruel place on earth” (67).
As richly and skillfully as they depict the American social scene, Cahan’s novels and stories are about the Old World as much as the New. Cahan’s fictional characters, in adapting to severe economic conditions and to the awkward role of “greenhorn” or outsider in New York, acknowledge conceptual links to analogous experiences as social “Other” that had shaped their lives in Europe and prompted their emigration. Their success in the new country is ultimately colored by the knowledge that in coming to America they have traded one form of alienation for another, and that, especially for Jews, changes in geography or social status are superficial in comparison to deeper issues of identity and well-being that determine life on both sides of the Atlantic.
The specific characteristics of Abraham Cahan’s native culture and early life, as well as their importance to his body of superb fiction, are thus a subject of some significance. Though he is commonly referred to as “Russian Jewish” in ethnicity, Cahan may be more accurately identified as a Lithuanian Jew or “Litvak,” born during the reign of Tsar Alexander II within the Pale of Jewish Settlement in what is now the Lithuanian town of Paberžė. In 1865, before he was six years old, Cahan’s family moved to Vilna, a city then commonly described as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its large and important Jewish population, but which was also the capital of the “government” of Vilna in what was officially called “Northwestern Provinces, Russia.” This city, where Cahan lived for sixteen years, is of course the current Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Cahan left tsarist Lithuania for New York in 1882, but Vilna and its environs retained a strong hold on his imagination. Each of Cahan’s novels is set in part in a city that closely resembles Vilna, and many of the characters in his fictional works display important spiritual and biographical connections to Lithuanian settings.
Several concrete anecdotes from Cahan’s life in Vilna as described in his autobiography are notable for their long-term influence, first on Cahan’s political outlook and later on his fiction. His initial inclination toward the “culturally socialist” philosophy that would later define his politics and underlie the ideology of much of his fiction, for example, seems to derive as much from his childhood in Vilna as from his experience in America. In the second chapter of his autobiography, the author describes a certain Sabbath eve during his childhood when the Jewish inhabitants of Vilna sacrificed their customary meal because money was needed to buy replacements for military service in the tsar’s army. “The money usually spent for the Sabbath meal,” Cahan recalls, “was to be turned over to the Jewish community organization” (27). At the table that evening, Cahan’s father spoke eloquently of “the need for all to sacrifice equally for the good of the community” (27). Although the family patriarch was in Cahan’s assessment “as far from socialism as he was from algebra,” Cahan “often recalled” his father’s moving plea for mutual assistance as he took up socialist politics years later in New York, believing that “there was a common social outlook” (27) that bound the Jews of Vilna to the socialist movement of the United States. Accordingly, in Cahan’s best novel, rejection of these socialist principles creates a rift between the immigrant main character and his former circle. The Rise of David Levinsky suggests that the alienation of Cahan’s alter ego from his native culture is due in part to the acceptance of capitalist values over the collectivist ethos espoused in the Litvak milieu of his upbringing.
His life in Vilna had adumbrated Cahan’s socialism, but it also became a symbolic factor in his ultimate rejection of anarchism. Reeling from the execution of the Haymarket anarchists in 1887, at a critical moment in his political development, Cahan effects another imaginative return to the city, recalling the formative years of his education at the Vilna Teacher Training Institute: “I would dream I was back at the Vilna Institute sitting with my fellow students around the long tables in the dining hall” (332). Testing the practicality of anarchist philosophy, he then considers what would happen under anarchism if the Vilna Institute students could not agree about such basic matters as when to have lunch or whether to open a window. With this scene in mind, Cahan confronts the German anarchist leader M. Bachman with the “example of the institute window” as a device for measuring the applications of radical philosophy. After Bachmann politely admits that the illustration had revealed “an important problem,” Cahan decides to break with anarchism: “I returned home from that walk no longer an anarchist” (335). Cahan explains that he “later ...used the substance of this discussion in lectures and articles” (335), but its influence is discernible in his fiction as well, most notably in The White Terror and the Red, a novel that uses details from Cahan’s involvement in the 1870s with anti-tsarist student groups at the Vilna Teacher Training Institute to similarly critique revolutionary methods and ideology.
Another compelling incident from Cahan’s youth in Lithuania illustrates the peculiar potency of the author’s powers of recollection and suggests how his fiction drew upon the outlines of Lithuanian history as an imaginative resource. Walking with his mother from Podberezy to Vilna in 1863, the three-yearold Cahan had been struck by the sight of several gallows in a cabbage field near the road. Hanging from the gallows, “their bodies wrapped in white gowns that fluttered in the wind” (4), were Polish landowners who had risen, with support from a large number of Lithuanian peasants as well, against tsarist policies intolerant of manifestations of Polish and Lithuanian national identity. These local gentry were executed as rebels in large numbers by the governor general Muravyev, dubbed “the hangman” in popular memory and described by Cahan in his autobiography as the “ruling tyrant” of the province. The three-year-old Cahan had clearly been awed and terrorized by the macabre aspect of these victims. Decades later, he noted such details of the scene as the “white trousers” and “shiny black boots” (4) of the corpses, along with the disturbing image of a boot falling from one of the bodies.
In his first novel, Cahan returns to this imagery in constructing the scene during which the title character’s fate is decided. Yekl details the culture shock, adjustment pains, and eventual spiritual defeat of an immigrant from Povodye, a fictional town in “Northwestern Russia” that is probably based on Cahan’s Podberezy. On the rooftop of a New York tenement with his girlfriend Mamie, Yekl, who realizes that he no longer loves the wife he had left behind in a Lithuanian shtetl, resolves to sever ties with his past and marry Mamie. But as he embraces a future with the new spouse, he notices a white pillowcase “ominously fluttering and flapping” in the wind and imagines the figure of his dead father wrapped in burial linen. At this moment, the scene is transformed from a mood of “passion” to a feeling of “benumbing terror” that is strongly reminiscent in imagery and emotional intensity to Cahan’s encounter in 1863 with the white-shrouded victims of Muravyev on the road to Vilna. Thus when Mamie declares, “Now it is all settled” (78), her assertion comprises meaning for both the fictional character and the author himself, who never lost contact with his formative spiritual influences, and whose perceptions during his mature life in the New World were persistently shaped and “settled” by his youthful experience in the Old.
The first short story Cahan wrote in English makes prominent reference to elements of Lithuanian cultural history of the 1880s. “A Providential Match” (1895) describes the career of Rouvke Arbel, a Jewish immigrant from Kropovetz, a fictionally- named village located in the “Government of Kovno” and thus near the present-day city of Kaunas. In tsarist Lithuania, Rouvke had been a servant of the well-to-do Jewish distiller Reb Peretz. While employed by Peretz, the illiterate worker had fallen in love with the distiller’s daughter Hanele. But since the penniless laborer had no hope to win the “pet daughter” of the businessman and rabbi, the 22-year-old Rouvke – like a large number of Jews during this time period – had left for America when his name had appeared on the tsar’s military service roll.
From this point in the story, economic forces endemic to both America and tsarist Lithuania combine to bring about a change in the characters’ fortunes. In New York, Rouvke Arbel works his way up from struggling “handkerchief peddler” to “custom peddler,” becoming a small businessman with capital at his disposal. Four years removed from the shtetl, Rouvke, now the proud possessor of the “tzibilized” name of Robert Friedman, is financially successful, but still lonely and illiterate. One Sabbath at the “Sons of Kropovetz” synagogue, Rouvke encounters Feive, a Hebrew teacher and part-time professional “match-maker” recently arrived from Kropovetz, and learns that Hanele is still unmarried, along with the equally important news that the distillery of Reb Peretz has been closed, forcing the erstwhile “first citizen” of the shtetl into greatly reduced financial circumstances. “I am now richer than Reb Peretz...!” Rouvke exclaims. The reversal of the economic relation between Rouvke and the Peretz family makes possible a match with Hanele. Negotiations by letter ensue, the marriage is agreed upon, and Rouvke sends money for Hanele’s passage to America.
The story’s plot hinges not only on the easily explained financial rise of Rouvke Arbel in New York, but on the severe reduction in financial status of Reb Peretz, the reasons for which are less apparent. Describing the difficulties of Peretz, a liquor merchant of the Kaunas region, Feive refers to the “hard times the Jews are now having” in tsarist Lithuania. Without elaborating on the politics of the situation, Feive indicates that the distillery is closed because “A Jew can nowadays hardly engage in any business, much less in the liquor line” (171). The story provides no other explanation for Peretz’s troubles, but Cahan biographer Sanford Marovitz concludes that the Peretz distillery would have been closed by “anti-Semitic government decree” (88).
It seems necessary to acknowledge, however, that Reb Peretz’s troubles may be traceable to a historical context of emerging “economic rivalry” 8 between Jewish and Lithuanian communities that attended the period of Lithuanian cultural self-assertion. Because Jews had long occupied the key position of “intermediary” between rural peasants and necessary urban goods and services, their very presence seemed to constitute a check to the growing consciousness of Lithuanian national identity. Concentrated in the cities where Lithuanian farmers sold their goods, wealthier on average than Lithuanians, dominant in the merchant and artisan trades that were needed to supply farmers, and speaking Russian rather than Lithuanian as a second language,9 Jews had often been viewed as economic colonizers of Lithuania and an element of tsarist attempts at russification. For advocates of Lithuanian national revitalization, however, the paradox of “a Lithuanian land with Jewish cities” – within which non-Lithuanians held an indispensable commercial position – was particularly vexing. Recent studies of Jewish-Lithuanian relations during this period acknowledge an important shift in the prevailing image of the Jewish businessman from that of economic “intermediary” to that of economic “competitor,” an adversary “with whom battle must be joined.”10
Accordingly, the underground periodicals Auszra and Varpas – important organs of Lithuanian cultural advancement – issued strong calls for the modernization of Lithuanian society while urging their readers to “drive out” Jewish commercial influences and “take back business from the Jews.”11 In an 1899 issue of Varpas, Jonas Vileišis called on Lithuanians to “start up your enterprise, kindle your commerce, and force out the foreigners in these areas while creating the various associations that can join in the elevation of the homeland.”12 One Varpas writer, reacting to a well-publicized fire that destroyed the home of a Lithuanian merchant, lamented that it was “difficult for Lithuanians to wrest business from the dirty hands of the black beards – simply try, and your wealth will burn in. flames.” The writer recommended that Lithuanians build their stores where there were Jewish homes on both sides, supposedly in order to forestall future acts of arson, claiming, “The Jew rides on the backs of our farmers like a louse and gnaws at them.”13
Concurrent with these economically motivated complaints against Jews, the same elements of the Lithuanian underground press began in the 1880s to actively propagate another form of anti-Jewish sentiment, this time based on the politically-implicated issue of alcohol production. The roots of this conflict extend to the 1850s, when a working relationship had developed between Lithuanian temperance associations and the movement for Lithuanian cultural renewal.14 Decades before the historical present of Cahan’s story, at the time of the 1863 uprising, Governor Muravyev, seeking to eliminate local organizations existing independently of the tsarist government, had outlawed the temperance associations, imposed stiff fines on the clergy who encouraged them, and silenced Lithuanian religious leaders who advocated temperance to their congregations. The repression of the temperance movement by the tsarist government had been a serious blow to the organization of nationhood for Lithuania. Historically, Lithuanian Jews had also opposed temperance because of the livelihood that large numbers of Jewish merchants had derived from vodka sales.
As the temperance movement was forced underground, a state monopoly on alcohol sales had been instituted by the tsarist government, not in order to limit, but to encourage the sale and use of alcohol among Lithuanian peasants and farmers. As Eidintas observes, “The establishment of the state monopoly on alcoholic beverages... did not reduce the number of Lithuanian drinkers” and instead “Jewish taverns quickly grew in number” (31). The growth in the number of Jewish alcohol merchants during the period, along with what Eidintas refers to as “the Jewish controlled monopolistic vodka network” (44), became a severe irritant for leaders of the nationalist movement, in part because of the perceived need for Lithuanians to reduce alcohol intake, but perhaps more urgently because of the aforementioned critical need for ethnic Lithuanians to engage in small business and thus assert themselves in nonagricultural economic spheres.
Not surprisingly, alcohol production and the Jew became linked nefariously in the Lithuanian press of the 1880s. Referring in a tone of condemnation to the proliferation of Jewish alcohol purveyors, a Lithuanian writer in an 1884 issue of Auszra had warned, “Alcohol is the Jew’s strength, his power to cheat people and rob them. These swindlers are not ashamed to water down their liquor, but give it potency by mixing in vitriol or other poisons horribly harmful to one’s health.” In 1885, Auszra writer Juozas Kalnėnas wrote, “Everywhere one looks, there are taverns, everywhere the sons of Israel are feeding their victims and multiplying without end while not doing any heavy work, and each year our breadwinners are becoming more destitute... The gathered fruits of the land go to the Jews for liquor.”15 In 1886, Petras Vileišis attempted to describe several types of Jewish businessmen, beginning his ranking with “The most horrible person in the villages – the Jewish saloonkeeper.”16 The comment in Cahan’s story that a Jew in Lithuania “can nowadays hardly engage in any business, much less in the liquor line” seems likely to refer to these prevalent attitudes, available in the officially banned but widespread Lithuanian journalism of the period and linked with the evolving movement toward political separatism.
The prevailing terms of Jewish-Lithuanian interaction would improve in the first decades of the twentieth century,17 but during the period covered by Cahan’s first short story, “it was a strange, even antipodal relation for the [two] social classes; as Lithuanians moved toward business and commerce, circumstances compelled the two groups toward conflict and confrontation.” 18 As one Lithuanian historian explained, Litvaks “were always ‘caught between the hammer and the anvil’; the Russian state viewed them as untrustworthy potential traitors, while Lithuanians simultaneously saw them as sycophants to Russian authority – and more importantly, as economic competitors.” 19 Lithuanians as well, who had difficulty establishing themselves in the larger cities, found themselves in “an unenviable position”20 that – while it did not produce institutionalized anti-Semitism,21 – could not fail to produce specific tensions of economic origin.
The climax of Cahan’s “The Imported Bridegroom” occurs with Hanele’s arrival in New York. In preparation, Rouvke dresses in his best American attire and hires a pair of elegant carriages to meet his future bride in style. When Hanele disembarks at New York’s Castle Garden, however, she is armin- arm with a stylishly dressed Russian-Jewish “collegian” she has met in the steerage of the vessel, who is now her fiancée and her true “providential match.” Adding insult to injury, the young man smugly promises to pay Rouvke for Hanele’s transatlantic ticket, explaining that he has “a rich brother in Buffalo.” It had appeared that in Kropovetz, a place troubled by political and ethnic rivalry, Hanele could hope for neither romantic love nor financial security. By taking the risk of emigration to be with Rouvke, she had apparently sacrificed love for money. In the end, however, she appears to have gained both. The story’s surprise ending suggests that the loss in social status brought about by the closing of the Peretz distillery is highly geographically dependent, that such local animosities are negated by the new set of economic and cultural circumstances. From Rouvke’s point of view, however, newfound prosperity in America proves insufficient to overcome the intractable class divisions of the older society. The complex cultural conditions that had prompted the Peretz family’s financial demise, Hanele’s emigration, and the ambivalent outcomes that follow, epitomize the destinies of thousands of Lithuanian Jews who left the country in increasing numbers during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
A similar type of mutually illuminating relation between Jewish Lithuania and Jewish New York in Cahan’s fiction is apparent in The Rise of David Levinsky. Here the title character, like Rouvke in “A Providential Match,” continually acknowledges that the years he spent in his native land linger indelibly in his memory. Even after twenty-five years and a successful career in New York, Levinsky claims that he has “a better recollection” of incidents from his “childhood days” than his recent life-history. Like Cahan in his autobiography, David Levinsky describes an “excruciatingly homesick” feeling after emigration, a susceptibility to “pangs of yearning” that does not abate even in the “Golden Land.” The spiritual malaise that pursues Levinsky despite his material success is the direct result of his inability to reconcile the “essential” personality produced and shaped by old-world life with the “civilized” American he has become. His expression of final awareness – “I cannot escape from my old self” (372) – is a cry of both joy and anguish. It indicates not simply the depth of the author’s attachment to the distant culture in which he had experienced greatest pain and greatest happiness, but the continuing importance of Lithuania as Cahan’s historical backdrop and imaginative catalyst.
The opening chapters of The Rise of David Levinsky describe an incident from the protagonist’s teenage years in Antomir, a fictional city clearly modeled on Vilna:
The Jewish Passover often concurs with the Christian Easter. This was the case in the year in question. One afternoon – it was the seventh day of our festival – I chanced to be crossing the Horse-market. As it was not a market day, it was deserted save for groups of young Gentiles, civilians and soldiers, who were rolling brightly colored Easter eggs over the ground. My new long-skirted coat and side-locks provoked their mirth until one of them hit me a savage blow in the face, splitting my lower lip. Another rowdy snatched off my new cap – just because our people considered it a sin to go bareheaded. And, as I made my way, bleeding, with one hand to my lip and the other over my bare head, the company sent a shower of broken eggs and a chorus of jeers after me.
...When I entered our basement and faced my mother, she stared at me for a moment, as though dumbfounded, and then, slapping her hands together, she sobbed:
“Woe is me! Darkness is me! What has happened to you?”
When she had heard my story she stood silent a while, looking aghast, and then left the house.
...Fifteen minutes later she was carried into our basement unconscious. Her face was bruised and swollen and the back of her head was broken. She died the same evening.
I have never been able to learn the ghastly details of her death. The police and an examining magistrate were said to be investigating the case, but nothing came of it. (35)
The origins of this hate crime and its apparent concealment by the Gentile community are multiple, and they include racial pretexts both recent and ancient, both geographically widespread and culture-specific. At the time of Cahan’s writing, various forms of xenophobic anti-Semitic prejudice had been present for centuries among folk cultures of nearly every nation in Europe, including tsarist Lithuania.22 Arguably, the horrific violence Cahan describes could have happened almost anywhere in Eastern Europe or Russia during the last five centuries.
But the incident is also grounded in specific historical motivations. Cahan’s narrator indicates that an “epidemic of anti-Jewish atrocities” in Russia during 1881 and 1882 was still “fresh in one’s mind” when it took place. He is referring to the brutal pogroms that immediately followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and began on Easter of 1881. As a recent historian of the period explains, the fact that a large number of Jews had participated (as Cahan himself did) in revolutionary student organizations that had called for the tsar’s overthrow gave rise to “a strong anti-Jewish feeling in the highest levels of the tsarist government.”23 The resultant pogroms, which the tsarist government pretended were due to a spontaneous outburst of popular indignation against the Jews but were actually fomented by tsarist authorities,24 took place mainly in Elisabethgrad, Kiev and Odessa, with atrocities smaller in scale spreading to “over 200 places.”25 The prevailing mood of their aftermath comprises the immediate historical context for the harassment and murder described in the fictionalized Vilna of Cahan’s novel.
In addition to broadly racial and discreet historical motivations for its anti-Semitic violence, it is interesting to note the ways that the incident also resembles traditions at least partially specific to the religious culture of nineteenth-century Lithuania, where the image of the “Jew as infidel” had been a standard archetype during the Easter period of the liturgical calendar. Ritual Lithuanian Easter masques, for example, involved actors who portrayed both Jews and soldiers in a violent struggle over the sacred symbols of Christianity. In these dramas, recently described by Laima Anglickienė, a masquer disguised as a typical Jew would enter the church during Easter vigil services to steal the Christian crucifix, only to be repulsed by armed soldiers in a staged skirmish. Eventually, the intruding Jew would do battle not only with the soldiers but with the entire congregation, interrupting prayers and performing ill-mannered tricks, all the while mumbling disturbingly in an unintelligible language. Other versions of this ritual could involve a pair of Jews who torment churchgoers before mounting the scaffold in preparation for a sacrilegious sermon, whereupon the church sexton physically intervenes to silence them. Related Jewish scapegoating rituals took place on Easter morning, during which a masquer Jew would disrupt the Easter procession with noises and strange antics. These popular plays were “widely diffused”26 in nineteenth century Lithuanian religious observance. According to Anglickiene, worshippers up until the mid-twentieth century would sometimes even attend a church other than their own on Easter if the Jewish masques were not offered locally. 27
Easter-day violence toward David Levinsky seems grounded in a symbolic context identical to that of the religious masques. Wearing a new cap and a dark-colored “new coat... with absurdly long skirts,” Levinsky is dressed in the customary Jewish attire that was also used in the masques. Throughout tsarist Russia, this traditional dress had in many cases been a rationale for intense anti-Jewish feeling.28 Interrupting Christian civilians and soldiers during a rite involving Easter symbols, young Levinsky seems to have made an all-too alluring target for the Gentiles in the deserted square, who would almost certainly have been versed in a Jew-baiting tradition, perhaps even to the point of having earlier that day enacted or witnessed a public masque portraying the Jew as infidel. As in the ritual plays, Levinsky initially provokes “mirth” for the concelebrants, and his humiliation and eventual expulsion from the Gentile Easter observance are in accordance with the genre’s dramatic conventions. The consequences become grave, however, when his mother fights back – defying the behavioral expectations and limitations of the drama. The overflow of the “mirthful” but vicious harassment into the terms of horrific murder of a Jewish mother is an apt figuration of the status of the Jew in relation to the folklore and operant myths of adjoining Gentile communities before, during and after tsarist rule. Looking at the harassment and murder in light of the dramatic rituals underscores the distant origin of anti-Semitic violence in longstanding cultural predisposition.
Looking at the same events in conjunction with Cahan’s description of the period’s assassination-prompted Jewish pogroms reveals the workings of race-hatred as a function of the state’s calculated response to what it viewed as political terrorism. Together, these perspectives suggest the ways that Cahan’s narrative constitutes in sum an unusually nuanced depiction of the Jew’s vulnerability to violent social scapegoating under terms of both immediate, politically determined tsarist policy and deepseated local tradition.
In Cahan’s novel, the main character comes to recognize the roots of his being in this incident, exploring its spiritual significance and using it as a template for evaluating his immigrant experience. In America, he is haunted by a feeling of intense guilt for allowing his mother to die for him. “Excruciatingly homesick” soon after his arrival in New York, Levinsky realizes that “She had died so that I might... make a good start in America” (71). Considering that he was eighteen years old, nearly an adult at the time of the incident, and that he had not attempted to either verbally dissuade or physically prevent his mother from leaving the house in his defense, Levinsky’s guilt does not seem misplaced. His indelible remorse is foremost among many emotional habits and psychic intrusions that hinder his ability to either fully give himself over to American life, or to sever spiritual ties with Lithuania: “My heart went out to my poor dead mother... I thought of her and of all of Antomir” (71).
Near the end of the novel, Levinsky is drawn back to the synagogue of the Sons of Antomir for a traditional prayer service on the anniversary of his mother’s death. In this scene, the irreconcilable contradictions between the Lithuanian Jew and the American businessman become apparent and disabling. First, Levinsky meets in the synagogue a celebrated cantor from his native town who had been enticed to emigrate by the exorbitant sum offered by the local Sons of Antomir to sing for their congregation in New York. This incident is based on Cahan’s own encounters in New York with several former Vilna Jews – a renowned Cantor Cooper, a noted chief rabbi Yankev Yoisef, a popular folk singer Eliakim Zunser – all of whom had been brought from Vilna by New York congregations, and all of whom had experienced one form or another of tragic disappointment in their new surroundings.29 From the once-famous cantor, Levinsky learns of the “modernized” tastes of American audiences and the myriad cultural factors that have reduced the erstwhile celebrity to a state of confused displacement and “servility” in the new world. Speaking nostalgically of life in Antomir, Levinsky and the cantor become aware that they are both “like a plant torn out of the soil and transplanted into a hothouse.”30 When the service begins and Levinsky prays for his mother, “memories and images” overwhelm him and turn his “present life into a dream” and his “Russian past into a reality” (271). Here his state of deep attachment to Antomir recalls that of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, whose attachment to Boston and the scene of her infamy proves equally indissoluble. As Hawthorne explains,
There is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given color to their lifetime; and still more irresistibly, the darker tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil... All other scenes of earth... were foreign to her in comparison.
For the same reason Hester cannot leave Boston, Levinsky cannot mentally transcend the scene of his life’s great tragedy. Having physically escaped Europe, he is forever trapped there spiritually. His attachment to the culture of his youth, and his inability to come fully to terms with the new American self he has created, stem from his mother’s death, the “great and marked event” that has “given color to [his] lifetime.” Paradoxically, the event most indicative of his outcast status in his culture of origin perpetuates his exiled condition in his current environment. Despite succeeding in America beyond his wildest expectations, his relation to the American social order persists in mirroring his relation to the society of tsarist Lithuania. Like Rouvke in “A Providential Match,” Levinsky awakens to the ineradicable and self-constituting hegemony of the native soil.
It is significant that Levinsky is culturally displaced in both Europe and America. During his youth, the Jews of tsarist Russia had been “made to realize that their birthplace was not their home” (42) and emigration had followed. Considering a return trip to Antomir in his middle years, Levinsky realizes that he would encounter the same oppressive anti-Semitism that accounted for his mother’s murder, that only if “Russia didn’t have that accursed government of hers” (278) would such a trip be possible. In America, Levinsky at one point be65 comes engaged to an American-born Jew and looks forward to fatherhood, musing that if he has a daughter “she’ll be named for [his] mother” (278). Immediately, however, he “reflected with mortification that [his] mother’s name could not be left in its original form, but would have to be Americanized.” That the name change becomes “a matter of grave concern” (278) for Levinsky is an indication of the incompleteness of his cultural assimilation. The reason it matters, and the reason his marriage never takes place, is best articulated in the Sons of Antomir synagogue on the anniversary of his mother’s death: “My heart was all in Antomir” (273).
Throughout his long life, Cahan himself missed few chances to express a similarly evocative preoccupation with the land of his birth. Even after he became a personification of immigrant success and a living archetype of American upward mobility, he repeatedly acknowledged how strong were the ties of his origin, how his thoughts were still dominated by what he called “the Old Country.” Cahan did not speak the Lithuanian language,31 but in his autobiography he mused at length about the influence of Vilna, recalling among his earliest impressions that the city “frightened me and bewitched me” (12). Later describing “sudden moments” of homesickness in New York, the author laments, “My dreams were filled with vistas of Vilna or visions of my father and mother. I dreamt... of Vilna. My heart would be filled with a crushing longing” (241). Cahan’s literary protagonists, like the author, are frequently subject to such intense nostalgia. Though they literally cannot go home again, they long for, describe, and return imaginatively to the world of their ancestors, a sometimes forbidding but still beloved land of rural shtetls and urban ghettos. Probably, their figurative return to the old world is powerful and convincing because Cahan’s own experience led in a similar direction, away from Vilna and Podberezy, but backward in time and place as he reworked his experience into fiction.
One of the major differences between literary realism and the romance fiction that preceded it is that realism moved away from a distant historical past in order to concentrate on a more immediate historical present. Among its core characteristics, literary realism attempted to show how new commercial influences had interrupted the older cultural rhythms and put in motion processes that alienated the individual and devalued familial and human relationships. Drawing its underlying assumptions from Darwin and Spencer, realism and its naturalistic offshoot accepted the biological principle that ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny – that the species could be described through the unflinching portrayal of the life-history of a single organism. David Levinsky’s financial rise in New York confirms that he had in a sense won the evolutional and biological battle for survival, that he was in his own assessment “one of the fittest... in a Darwinian sense” (241). Levinsky realizes, however, that “there are cases when success is a tragedy” (371) and that what he has tragically lost is his connection to the milieu that had formed him, the society that had conferred his essential identity, without which his life is lonely and without meaning. In Cahan’s realism-naturalism, it seems, forces of the marketplace are more easily managed than self-constituting cultural forces of social derivation.
As a reference point for understanding Cahan’s fiction, tsarist-Lithuanian social history yields considerable insights that argue for the relevance of nuanced culture-based approaches to the work of immigrant writers in general. From the start of Cahan’s career, Howells noticed the resonance of Cahan’s multiple and overlapping perspectives, stating that, “he brings in aid of his vision the far and rich perceptions of his Hebraic race.”32 In praising Cahan’s early stories in 1902, Hutchins Hapgood also considered it important to observe that “Cahan came to America a mature man with the life of one community already a familiar thing to him.”33 More recently, Sanford Marovitz’s superb critical biography explores the ways that Cahan’s international ties and Jewish experience “gave him access to attitudes and materials that were generally inaccessible to Gentile American authors.”34 The method and subject matter of Cahan’s fiction have been referred to as “Jewish- American realism,” but any description of his art should probably acknowledge the uniqueness of its “Litvak” element as well, along with its rich context of Eastern European history and its immersion in concerns of particular moment to tsarist Lithuania in the late-nineteenth century. That Cahan’s characters inhabit two worlds with neither completely dominant, and that they do so in psychologically plausible and complex ways, is a fact which suggests the author’s ability to view his characters in precise relation to both native and adopted cultures, with sympathy for both. The strength of Cahan as a realist is commensurate with the depth of this uniquely immigrationderived anxiety as transmitted in his fiction. It was this dual perspective – highly appropriate for an immigrant writer but outside the available ken of native-born writers of the period – that most markedly distinguished Cahan’s fiction and engendered what is now being recognized as “a vital new component in American realism.”35
1. Cahan, 1969, 1; hereafter cited as Education.
2. Education, 405.
3. By the 1920s, the Forward achieved a paid circulation of more than a quarter of a million through an editorial formula that spoke ardently to the masses, mixing entertainment with hard news and political analysis and using the language of the streets to interpret the “ways of America” for new arrivals in the country.
4. Howells, July 26, 1896, 18.
6. Chametzky notes that Cahan’s commitment to socialism became increasingly “cultural rather than specifically political” and that, after his first few years in the United States, its meaning became more “spiritual and ethical than programmatic”, 21-22. Also quoted in Marovitz, 25.
7. For a concise treatment of the Polish-Lithuanian political relations during the 1863 uprising, see Vincas Trumpa, “The 1863 Revolt in Lithuania.” Lituanus 9 (4): December 1963.
8. Vladas Sirutavičius argues that while “the concept of the Jew as a rival group” gained force among Lithuanian communities of the late-nineteenth century, it obviously could not “in principle change the social and economic state” of Jewish relations by producing systemic or politically institutionalized anti-Semitism. This was because the Lithuanian community was still “too weak,” its development limited by the “wall” of the Russian Imperial government bureaucracy, 68-69.
9. Eidintas explains that “The Jews of that time normally used not Polish but the Russian language, and the majority who lived in cities did not and could not learn Lithuanian, for in the cities there were few Lithuanians. This was an important feature in the formation of future relations between Jews and Lithuanians,” 29. See also Weeks and Sirutavičius.
10. Sirutavičius, 68. Drawing his conclusions from issues of Auszra and Varpas, Sirutavičius notes that the Lithuanian newspapers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect a heightening of economic tensions during the period.
11. Sirutavičius, 67, and Eidintas, 31.
12. Varpas, No. 3, 1899, 49. Quoted in Eidintas, 35. As Eidintas notes, the words “force out the foreigners” are clearly “directed against Jewish merchants,” 35
13 Auszra, No. 4 and 5, 1885, 233-234. Quoted in Eidintas, 32.
14. For an overview of the early history of the Lithuanian temperance associations, see Saulius A. Girnius, “Bishop Motiejus Valančius, A Man for All Seasons” Lituanus 22:2 (Summer 1976).
15. Juozas Kalnėnas, “Ką daryti?” Auszra, No. 7 and 8, 1885, 401. Quoted in Eidintas, 32.
16. Petras Vileišis. “Mūsų žydai ir kaip nuo jo turime gintiesi.” (Our Jews and how we must defend ourselves from them). Quoted in Eidintas, 32.
17 As Eidintas notes, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, history would greatly alter the Jewish-Lithuanan situation and relation... with very positive results for Lithuanians. Despite some new and inevitable problems that arose, circumstances were more favorable for Lithuanian Jews. First and foremost, there developed a new factor in Jewish-Lithuanian relations – the Lithuanian state, which Jews, especially the Jewish intelligentsia, had helped to create,” 59. Weeks concludes that “anti-Semitism remained a minor factor among Lithuanians before 1914.” Moreover, Weeks’s recent analysis observes that “initially after World War I, the political legal situation of Lithuanian Jews was quite good” and that Jews in Lithuania “were promised an impressive amount of internal autonomy” (54) during this period.
18. Edintas, 31.
19. Janulaitis, quoted in Eidintas, 38.
21. Detailed analyses of the period’s Lithuanian-Jewish relations are provided by Weeks and Sirutavičius, both of whom note the absence of “official” anti-Semitism in late-nineteenth century Lithuania while acknowledging the presence of culturally and religiously-based “Jew-phobia,” along with the emergence of heightened economic tensions between the two cultures. Sirutavičius, for example, describes “the formation of the image of the Jew as rival” among the “new and important features” of the “imagined Jew” in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
22 .Several recent studies have explored the “age-old anti-Jewish sentiments” (Weeks, 46) and traditional religious enmity toward the Jewish “social Other,” which “emerged from the peasant milieu” and which were “informed by peasant experience and tradition” (Sirutavičius, 65, 66). See Anglickienė, Weeks and Sirutavičius.
23. Eidintas, 26. 24. Cohen, 1943, 293.
26. Anglickienė, 2003, 20.
28. In 1850, for example, a decree was issued by Tsar Nicholas I forbidding Jews to wear their traditional garb or retain their earlocks. See Cohen, 1943, 280.
29. See Cahan, Education, 394-396.
30. Ibid, 396.
31. In his autobiography, Cahan describes a stop in the countryside during a trip he had taken for the purpose of establishing an underground press for the anti-tsarist Land and Freedom Party. During a heavy rain, “The tavern in which we sought refuge was crowded with... pipe-smoking peasants who spoke Lithuanian. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying,” 159.
32. Howells, 18.
33. Hapgood, 1996, 236.
34. Marovitz, 1996, 69, provides an excellent overview of Cahan’s life and work.
35. Ibid. 68
Anglickienė, Laima. “Svetimas, bet neblogai pažįstamas” (A Stranger, Quite Well Known: The Image of the Jew in Lithuanian Folklore) in Lietuvos žydai. (Lithuania’s Jews) Ed. Leonas Gudaitis. Kaunas: Vytautas the Great University Press, 2003: 5-26.
Cahan, Abraham. Yekl and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. 1896, 1898. New York: Dover Publications, 1970.
_____. The White Terror and the Red: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1905.
_____. The Rise of David Levinsky. 1917. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.
_____. The Education of Abraham Cahan, vols. 1 and 2 of Bleter fun mayn lebn, trans. Leon Stein, Abraham P. Conan, and Lynn Davison. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969.
Chametzky, Jules. From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.
Cohen, Israel. Vilna. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1943.
Eidintas, Alfonsas. Žydai, lietuviai ir Holokaustas (Jews, Lithuanians and the Holocaust). Vilnius: Vaga, 2002.
Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spirit of the Ghetto. 1902. New York: Schocken, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
Howells, William Dean. “New York Low Life in Fiction.” New York World, July 26, 1896): 18.
Janulaitis, Augustinas. Žydai Lietuvoje: Bruožai iš Lietuvos visuomenės istorijos XIV-XIX amž. (Jews in Lithuania: Characteristics from Lithuanian Social History of the 14th to 19th Centuries). Kaunas, 1923.
Marovitz, Sanford. Abraham Cahan. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Sirutavičius, Vladas. “Notes on the Origin and Development of Modern Lithuanian Antisemitism in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century and the Beginning of the Twentieth Century” in The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews. Eds. Alvydas Nikžentaitis, Stefan Schreiner, Darius Staliūnas. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004: 61-72.
Weeks, Theodore R. “Politics, Society, and Antisemitism: Peculiarities of the Russian Empire and Lithuanian Lands” in The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews. Eds. Alydas Nikžentaitis, Stefan Schreiner, Darius Staliūnas. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004: 45-59.
All translations from Lithuanian language texts are by the author.