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The Rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan

Discussion Guide

Introduction

Published in 1917, The Rise of David Levinsky is considered to be the first American novel to chronicle the Jewish American immigrant experience at the end of the 19th century. Almost a century later, it can be difficult to imagine the significance of this book at the time of its publication and in the intervening years.

Certainly before the turn of the last century, and undoubtedly since, we are proud to proclaim our nation a country of immigrants. We have developed an awareness of the immigrant experience through a variety of media—newspapers, books, magazine articles, television documentaries, radio shows and movies. We hardly can help but be aware, to some degree, of the unique challenges that have faced immigrants from such diverse places as Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba, China and Korea, to name a few. Even over the last thirty years within our own Jewish community we have come to appreciate the experiences of Russians, Iranians, Israelis, South Africans and South Americans starting their lives over in their adopted homeland.

What became the book The Rise of David Levinsky originally appeared as four related short stories in the English-language McClure’s Magazine. Immediately, what might have otherwise been available only to the new Jewish immigrants themselves, if it had been published in Yiddish, ultimately engaged a readership far beyond the streets of the Lower East Side in New York. The struggle for success, the challenges of building a new life while your heart lives in another continent, and the support as well as distrust that existed within the Jewish immigrant community were all laid out for everyone—immigrant and American alike. In this way, America began to learn how a land of opportunity could also feel like a land of lost souls.

About the Author

Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), the son of a rabbi, was born and raised in Vlinius, where he trained as a teacher in the Jewish Folk Schools. Steeped in the traditional world of Jewish religious life he, nonetheless, became a socialist. Fleeing the Russian programs of 1881, he arrived in New York at the beginning of the largest Jewish wave of immigration to America. He quickly involved himself in the intellectual and political life of the Lower East Side. Working odd factory jobs, he gradually established himself as a trade union activist and journalist. He also began writing fiction in Yiddish and English.

In 1897, Cahan co-founded the Jewish Daily Forward, which would become the largest Yiddish language newspaper in the world. He edited the paper from 1902 until his death in 1951. He was considered uniquely qualified for this position because he seemed to have his feet in three worlds: the Yiddish, the Russian and the American. As such, he was able to write as an insider about the tensions inherent in acculturation, a word invented in the 1880s to describe the immigrant experience of adaptation to a new world.

Though he wrote several other English and Yiddish short stories and novels, The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917, is considered his masterpiece as well as a major contribution to American literature. Not only was it the first novel to describe the immigrant experience to an English-speaking audience, it also opened the literary door to other Jewish authors who described the evolving Jewish-American experience—Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth.

Questions For Discussion

  1. Though in Russia David Levinsky was a Talmud student and seemingly devoted to his studies, we learn that he harbors some wanderlust in his heart. “The United States lured me not merely as a land of milk and honey,” he explains, “but also, and perhaps chiefly, as one of mystery, of fantastic experiences, of marvelous transformations.” While David Levinsky and millions of other Eastern European Jews were motivated to emigrate because of dangerous pogroms and mandatory military enlistment, we assume that many of them also shared some of David’s fascination with America. What do you know, from your own family or others, about immigrants’ motivations and feelings about coming to America?
  2. One of the themes running through this book is the chasm between the world of the scholar and the world of the businessman. As Cahan describes it, in the scholar’s world one is learned, devoted to Judaism, modest, and humble whereas in the business world one is aggressive, deceitful, too busy for religion, and crass. Do you agree with Cahan that these two worlds are irreconcilable? If this was the immigrants’ perception, what kinds of pressures might it have created within the structure of the family?
  3. Another of the many tensions in this book is the relationship between the more established German Jewish immigrants and the newly-arrived Eastern European Jews. Well aware that he aspires to be as American as his German Jewish brethren, David also realizes that “German-American Jews curry favor with Portuguese-American Jews, just as we all curry favor with Gentiles and as American Gentiles curry favor with the aristocracy of Europe.” What has been your experience with ethic or social groups aspiring to be like those they think are of higher status? To what extent do you think these feelings still exist in our Jewish community today?
  4. At least two generations of Jews immigrated to America at the turn of the century: parents and their children. Not surprisingly, the ease of their entry into American society varied greatly. Dora, while immensely proud when her daughter Lucy started school, was determined to not be left behind. “People will beggar themselves to send their children to college, only to be treated as fools and greenhorns by them. I call that terrible. Don’t you? Well, I am not going to let my child treat me like that. Not I. I should commit suicide first. I want my child to respect me, not to look down on me.” Even today, we talk about each generation wanting something better for their children, but we talk less about the fear and anxiety that accompany these aspirations. In what ways do you still see evidence of parents’ anxiety regarding their children’s intellectual development and material success?
  5. One of the most moving scenes in the book occurs when David visits the resort in the Catskills. In an effort to get the dinner crowd’s attention, the band plays The Star Spangled Banner. As everyone rises to their feet and sings along, David remarks, “It was an interesting scene. Men and women were offering thanksgiving to the flag under which they were eating this good dinner, wearing these expensive clothes. There was the jingle of newly-acquired dollars in our applause. But there was something else in it as well. Many of those who were now paying tribute to the Stars and Stripes were listening to the tune with grave, solemn mien. It was as if they were saying: “We are not persecuted under this flag. At last we have found a home.” David seems to comment on this spontaneous expression of patriotism as an outsider. To what extent do you think David shares this gratitude for what his adopted country has to offer?
  6. In sociology, the terms “assimilation” and “acculturation” refer to two different processes through which individuals or groups may adapt to a new culture. In assimilation, one person or group becomes absorbed into another. In acculturation, a person or group’s culture undergoes modification by adapting or borrowing traits of another culture. Since our arrival in America, Jews have struggled with these two processes. In presenting David Levinsky’s attempts to “make it” in America, Cahan chooses to focus on what David gave up in order to make the transition from greenhorn to Yankee, e.g. his intellectual pursuits, his spiritual self, his connection to home. As you look back over your own family’s journey or the history of Jews in America, what evidence do you see of assimilation? What evidence do you see of acculturation? In what ways do you think Jewish life has been enriched in America? What aspects of our heritage do you feel have been lost?
  7. The adoption of English and the concurrent loss of one’s native language seems to be one of the most significant indications of immigrant acculturation. The more English David and his associates speak, the more disengaged they seem from their own roots and true selves. What has been your experience with language as a measure of identity? What place does Yiddish, or another native language of your ancestors, have in your family?
  8. David gets involved with several women over time, but none of them lasts. Through the years he also befriends various men and families, but there always was a falling out or a superficiality about these friendships. Why do you think David never succeeds in forming deep, genuine relationships?
  9. What would Cahan have us believe was the price of success for David Levinsky? Why did he portray the immigrant generation this way? Do you agree with David when he says, “There are cases where success is a tragedy?”
  10. Cahan portrays David Levinsky, the stereotypical immigrant, as never at peace, never really happy. David says, “I can never forget the days of my misery. I cannot escape from my old self. My past and my present do not comport well.” To what extent do you think these feelings are a result of David being an immigrant? Under what circumstances, either in Russia or America, can you imagine David not feeling this angst?
  11. Cahan seems to believe that, all in all, David Levinsky led an empty and failed life. As an active socialist, Cahan describes David’s life as a successful businessman in depressing terms. At the end of the book he even has David tell us, “At the height of my business success I feel that if I had my life to live over again I should never think of a business career.” What are some of the ways Cahan describes the business of doing business that would have been distasteful—especially to a socialist?
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