Jews Without Money – worth reading?

Michael Gold’s “Jews Without Money” has not aged well.  Published in 1930, it went through many printings (mine is the fifth) and was translated into several languages.  Timing is everything, I guess, and the Depression (started in 1929) was just the time to write about the poor.

Michael Gold was not the author’s real name, which was Itzok Isaac Granich.  He was born in New York City and grew up in the lower east side, the setting for the novel, which I have seen called semi-autobiographical and a fictionalized autobiography.  It is written in the first person, by a man recollecting his younger years, starting at about six and ending up at about 12.  His parents are immigrants – his father was a foolish young rascal in Romania, and although he started with high hopes, could not get himself off the ground in America.  He worked for a relative who had a suspender manufacturing business and became his partner, only to have the business stolen out from under him.  He worked as a house painter and became a foreman, only to be cut down by lead poisoning and then an injury that kept him bed ridden for a year.  He ended up peddling bananas.  His mother, from Hungary, worked for a while, but had a lot to do keeping their apartment in order and the kids (there were three) fed, and performing good deeds for all of her neighbors, Jewish and Christian, anyone in need.  After her daughter (the protagonist’s sister) is killed by a delivery truck during a snow storm, she loses all interest in the world and is no longer able to work.

For a kid, the lower east side had gangs to join (and bad deeds to enjoy), prostitutes, gangsters, religious figures, atheists, peddlers, doctors – a little of everything.  It was also ugly, poor, too hot or too cold, and dangerous.  And, it was a trap.  Once you were in it, and once you were caught in poverty, you could not get out.  And this went for the Jews who were the majority in the neighborhood, but also for the Irish, Italian and Chinese minorities, and the occasional blacks.  Our chief character seems to succumb as well, quitting school at age 12, not going to high school, much less college and medical school as he had wanted.  He needed to work and support the family, and the jobs he found were no improvement on his father’s.

So it’s a book of vignettes, none of which are particularly memorable, virtually all of which are relatively unpleasant.  All in all, America is no bargain, and nothing like what it is cracked up to be.  Although, it is true that America as viewed on the lower east side is not the true America.  The perspectives of its habitues are very limited.  They certainly know that there are rich people, although they don’t know them, and they even know that there are rich Jews, typically the German Jews of the upper east side.  They attribute the success of these wealthy banking and mercantile families to luck – as if they must have started out poor, like themselves.

There is a glimpse of something better at the very end of the book, however, when the narrator realizes that what is needed is a revolution, led by the proletariat, who really do seem to have “nothing to lose but their chains”.  For until the unions are strengthened, and capital is corralled, there is no chance for the masses.

This conclusion is not surprising, because Gold was a fervent Communist and member of the party.  Of course, a lot of people had Communist leanings when the news from the Soviet Union seemed so positive and the conditions in the United States so difficult.  But Gold stuck to his position, after most intellectuals left their Communist days behind them.  In fact, although this was the only novel he wrote, Gold did keep in the (leftist) public eye by writing a daily (!) column in the communist Daily Worker for almost 40 years, until his death in 1967.

The book was recommended at the lecture on New York tenement life that I attended (and found so amateurish) last week at the Library of Congress, along with “The Rise of David Levitsky”. I decided to try both books – picked this one first because I had a copy.  I can’t say that I really recommend it – there must be other depictions of the lower east side in the 1900-1920 period which are more nuanced.  Nuanced this book is not.


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