"No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian's stories of Yiddish life. … [Mr. Cahan] is a humorist, and his humor does not spare the sordid and uncouth aspects of the character whose pathos he so tenderly reveals." — William Dean Howells
Yekl (1896), the novel upon which the highly successful film Hester Street was based, was written by Abraham Cahan, editor of the prestigious Jewish Daily Forward for half a century. It is probably the first novel in English that had a New York East Side immigrant as its hero; reviewing it, Howells hailed Cahan as "a new star of realism." The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories came two years later.
The Jews that Sholem Aleichem described in their little old-world shtetl had emigrated; other tale-tellers were needed to describe the Jewish experience in the tenements and garment factories of New York. Cahan was one of the first to write about them in English. His book gives a better picture than most works of non-fiction of what immigrant life was like at the turn of the century. Cahan clearly delineates the clash of cultures and shows the innumerable problems, crises and dilemmas of acculturations.
In Yekl, the central problem derives from a social condition: the urgent desire of the hero to become a real American, to be less a "greenhorn"; but the play of events is around an emotional crisis; Yekl no longer loves the wife he left behind, who has now rejoined him in the new land, and who seems to him shockingly European.
In The Imported Bridegroom, the issue is apparently religious, a clash between traditional faith and secularism; but we are left wondering whether philosophy has not become commingled with sociology. Other stories deal with sweatshop life, romance in the slums, a wedding in the ghetto.
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Yekl and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto
By Abraham Cahan
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
JAKE AND YEKL
The operatives of the cloak shop in which Jake was employed had been idle all the morning. It was after twelve o'clock and the "boss" had not yet returned from Broadway, whither he had betaken himself two or three hours before in quest of work. The little sweltering assemblage—for it was an oppressive day in midsummer—beguiled their suspense variously. A rabbinical-looking man of thirty, who sat with the back of his chair tilted against his sewing machine, was intent upon an English newspaper. Every little while he would remove it from his eyes—showing a dyspeptic face fringed with a thin growth of dark beard—to consult the cumbrous dictionary on his knees. Two young lads, one seated on the frame of the next machine and the other standing, were boasting to one another of their respective intimacies with the leading actors of the Jewish stage. The board of a third machine, in a corner of the same wall, supported an open copy of a socialist magazine in Yiddish, over which a cadaverous young man absorbedly swayed to and fro droning in the Talmudical intonation. A middle-aged operative, with huge red side whiskers, who was perched on the presser's table in the corner opposite, was mending his own coat. While the thick-set presser and all the three women of the shop, occupying the three machines ranged against an adjoining wall, formed an attentive audience to an impromptu lecture upon the comparative merits of Boston and New York by Jake.
He had been speaking for some time. He stood in the middle of the overcrowded stuffy room with his long but well-shaped legs wide apart, his bulky round head aslant, and one of his bared mighty arms akimbo. He spoke in Boston Yiddish, that is to say, in Yiddish more copiously spiced with mutilated English than is the language of the metropolitan Ghetto in which our story lies. He had a deep and rather harsh voice, and his r's could do credit to the thickest Irish brogue.
"When I was in Boston," he went on, with a contemptuous mien intended for the American metropolis, "I knew a feller, so he was a preticly friend of John Shullivan's. He is a Christian, that feller is, and yet the two of us lived like brothers. May I be unable to move from this spot if we did not. How, then, would you have it? Like here, in New York, where the Jews are a lot of greenhornsh and can not speak a word of English? Over there every Jew speaks English like a stream."
"Say, Dzake," the presser broke in, "John Sullivan is tzampion no longer, is he?"
"Oh, no! Not always is it holiday!" Jake responded, with what he considered a Yankee jerk of his head. "Why, don't you know? Jimmie Corbett leaked him, and Jimmie leaked Cholly Meetchel, too. You can betch you' bootsh! Johnnie could not leak Chollie, becaush he is a big bluffer, Chollie is," he pursued, his clean-shaven florid face beaming with enthusiasm for his subject, and with pride in the diminutive proper nouns he flaunted. "But Jimmie pundished him. Oh, didn't he knock him out off shight! He came near making a meat ball of him"—with a chuckle. "He tzettled him in three roynds. I knew a feller who had seen the fight."
"What is a rawnd, Dzake?" the presser inquired.
Jake's answer to the question carried him into a minute exposition of "right-handers," "lefthanders," "sending to sleep," "first blood," and other commodities of the fistic business. He must have treated the subject rather too scientifi-cally, however, for his female listeners obviously paid more attention to what he did in the course of the boxing match, which he had now and then, by way of illustration, with the thick air of the room, than to the verbal part of his lecture. Nay, even the performances of his brawny arms and magnificent form did not charm them as much as he thought they did. For a display of manly force, when connected—even though in a purely imaginary way—with acts of violence, has little attraction for a "daughter of the Ghetto." Much more interest did those arms and form command on their own merits. Nor was his chubby high-colored face neglected. True, there was a suggestion of the bulldog in its make up; but this effect was lost upon the feminine portion of Jake's audience, for his features, illuminated by a pair of eager eyes of a hazel hue, and shaded by a thick crop of dark hair, were, after all, rather pleasing than otherwise. Strongly Semitic naturally, they became still more so each time they were brightened up by his good-natured boyish smile. Indeed, Jake's very nose, which was fleshy and pear-shaped and decidedly not Jewish (although not decidedly anything else), seemed to join the Mosaic faith, and even his shaven upper lip looked penitent, as soon as that smile of his made its appearance.
"Nice fun that!" observed the side-whiskered man, who had stopped sewing to follow Jake's exhibition. "Fighting—like drunken moujiks in Russia!"
"Tarrarra-boom-de-ay!" was Jake's merry retort; and for an exclamation mark he puffed up his cheeks into a balloon, and exploded it by a "pawnch" of his formidable fist.
"Look, I beg you, look at his dog's tricks!" the other said in disgust.
"Horse's head that you are! "Jake rejoined good-humoredly. "Do you mean to tell me that a moujik understands how to fight? A disease he does! He only knows how to strike like a bear [Jake adapted his voice and gesticulation to the idea of clumsiness], an' dot'sh ull! What does he care where his paw will land, so he strikes. But here one must observe rulesh [rules]."
At this point Meester Bernstein—for so the rabbinical-looking man was usually addressed by his shopmates—looked up from his dictionary.
"Can't you see?" he interposed, with an air of assumed gravity as he turned to Jake's opponent, "America is an educated country, so they won't even break bones without grammar. They tear each other's sides according to 'right and left,' you know." This was a thrust at Jake's right-handers and left-handers, which had interfered with Bernstein's reading. "Nevertheless," the latter proceeded, when the outburst of laughter which greeted his witticism had subsided, "I do think that a burly Russian peasant would, without a bit of grammar, crunch the bones of Corbett himself; and he would not charge him a cent for it, either."
"Is dot sho?" Jake retorted, somewhat nonplussed. "I betch you he would not. The peasant would lie bleeding like a hog before he had time to turn around."
"But they might kill each other in that way, ain't it, Jake?" asked a comely, milk-faced blonde whose name was Fanny. She was celebrated for her lengthy tirades, mostly in a plaintive, nagging strain, and delivered in her quiet, piping voice, and had accordingly been dubbed "The Preacher."
"Oh, that will happen but very seldom," Jake returned rather glumly.
The theatrical pair broke off their boasting match to join in the debate, which soon included all except the socialist; the former two, together with the two girls and the presser, espousing the American cause, while Malke the widow and "De Viskes" sided with Bernstein.
"Let it be as you say," said the leader of the minority, withdrawing from the contest to resume his newspaper. "My grandma's last care it is who can fight best."
"Nice pleasure, anyhull," remarked the widow. "Never min', we shall see how it will lie in his head when he has a wife and children to support."
Jake colored. "What does a chicken know about these things?" he said irascibly.
Bernstein again could not help intervening. "And you, Jake, can not do without 'these things,' can you? Indeed, I do not see how you manage to live without them."
"Don't you like it? I do," Jake declared tartly. "Once I live in America," he pursued, on the defensive, "I want to know that I live in America. Dot'sh a' kin' a man I am! One must not be a greenhorn. Here a Jew is as good as a Gentile. How, then, would you have it? The way it is in Russia, where a Jew is afraid to stand within four ells of a Christian?"
"Are there no other Christians than fighters in America?" Bernstein objected with an amused smile. "Why don't you look for the educated ones?"
"Do you mean to say the fighters are not ejecate? Better than you, anyhoy," Jake said with a Yankee wink, followed by his Semitic smile. "Here you read the papers, and yet I'll betch you you don't know that Corbett findished college."
"I never read about fighters," Bernstein replied with a bored gesture, and turned to his paper.
"Then say that you don't know, and dot'sh ull!"
Bernstein made no reply. In his heart Jake respected him, and was now anxious to vindicate his tastes in the judgment of his scholarly shopmate and in his own.
"Alla right, let it be as you say; the fighters are not ejecate. No, not a bit?" he said ironically, continuing to address himself to Bernstein. "But what will you say to baseball? All college boys and tony peoplesh play it," he concluded triumphantly. Bernstein remained silent, his eyes riveted to his newspaper. "Ah, you don't answer, shee?" said Jake, feeling put out.
The awkward pause which followed was relieved by one of the playgoers who wanted to know whether it was true that to pitch a ball required more skill than to catch one.
"Sure! You must know how to peetch," Jake rejoined with the cloud lingering on his brow, as he lukewarmly delivered an imaginary ball.
"And I, for my part, don't see what wisdom there is to it," said the presser with a shrug. "I think I could throw, too."
"He can do everything!" laughingly remarked a girl named Pessé.
"How hard can you hit?" Jake demanded sarcastically, somewhat warming up to the subject.
"As hard as you at any time."
"I betch you a dullar to you 'ten shent you can not," Jake answered, and at the same moment he fished out a handful of coin from his trousers pocket and challengingly presented it close to his interlocutor's nose.
"There he goes !—betting!" the presser exclaimed, drawing slightly back. "For my part, your pitzers and catzers may all lie in the earth. A nice entertainment, indeed! Just like little children—playing ball! And yet people say America is a smart country. I don't see it."
"'F caush you don't, becaush you are a bedraggled greenhorn, afraid to budge out of Heshter Shtreet." As Jake thus vented his bad humor on his adversary, he cast a glance at Bernstein, as if anxious to attract his attention and to re-engage him in the discussion.
"Look at the Yankee!" the presser shot back.
"More of a one than you, anyhoy."
"He thinks that shaving one's mustache makes a Yankee!"
Jake turned white with rage.
"'Pon my vord, I'll ride into his mug and give such a shaving and planing to his pig's snout that he will have to pick up his teeth."
"That's all you are good for."
"Better don't answer him, Jake," said Fanny, intimately.
"Oh, I came near forgetting that he has somebody to take his part!" snapped the presser.
The girl's milky face became a fiery red, and she retorted in vituperative Yiddish from that vocabulary which is the undivided possession of her sex. The presser jerked out an innuendo still more far-reaching than his first. Jake, with bloodshot eyes, leaped at the offender, and catching him by the front of his waistcoat, was aiming one of those bear-like blows which but a short while ago he had decried in the moujik, when Bernstein sprang to his side and tore him away, Pessé placing herself between the two enemies.
"Don't get excited," Bernstein coaxed him.
"Better don't soil your hands," Fanny added.
After a slight pause Bernstein could not forbear a remark which he had stubbornly repressed while Jake was challenging him to a debate on the education of baseball players: "Look here, Jake; since fighters and baseball men are all educated, then why don't you try to become so? Instead of spending your money on fights, dancing, and things like that, would it not be better if you paid it to a teacher? "
Jake flew into a fresh passion. "Never min' what I do with my money," he said; "I don't steal it from you, do I? Rejoice that you keep tormenting your books. Much does he know! Learning, learning, and learning, and still he can not speak English. I don't learn and yet I speak quicker than you!"
A deep blush of wounded vanity mounted to Bernstein's sallow cheek. "Ull right, ull right!" he cut the conversation short, and took up the newspaper.
Another nervous silence fell upon the group. Jake felt wretched. He uttered an English oath, which in his heart he directed against himself as much as against his sedate companion, and fell to frowning upon the leg of a machine.
"Vill you go by Joe tonight?" asked Fanny in English, speaking in an undertone. Joe was a dancing master. She was sure Jake intended to call at his "academy" that evening, and she put the question only in order to help him out of his sour mood.
"No," said Jake, morosely.
"Vy, today is Vensday."
"And without you I don't know it!" he snarled in Yiddish.
The finisher girl blushed deeply and refrained from any response.
"He does look like a regely Yankee, doesn't he?" Pessé whispered to her after a little.
"Go and ask him!"
"Go and hang yourself together with him! Such a nasty preacher! Did you ever hear—one dares not say a word to the noblewoman!"
At this juncture the boss, a dwarfish little Jew, with a vivid pair of eyes and a shaggy black beard, darted into the chamber.
"It is no used!" he said with a gesture of despair. "There is not a stitch of work, if only for a cure. Look, look how they have lowered their noses!" he then added with a triumphant grin. "Vell, I shall not be teasing you. 'Pity living things!' The expressman is darn stess. I would not go till I saw him start, and then I caught a car. No other boss could get a single jacket even if he fell upon his knees. Vell, do you appreciate it at least? Not much, ay?"
The presser rushed out of the room and presently came back laden with bundles of cut cloth which he threw down on the table. A wild scramble ensued. The presser looked on indifferently. The three finisher women, who had awaited the advent of the bundles as eagerly as the men, now calmly put on their hats. They knew that their part of the work wouldn't come before three o 'clock, and so, overjoyed by the certainty of employment for at least another day or two, they departed till that hour.
"Look at the rush they are making! Just like the locusts of Egypt!" the boss cried half sternly and half with self-complacent humor, as he shielded the treasure with both his arms from all except "De Viskes" and Jake—the two being what is called in sweatshop parlance, "chance-mentshen," i.e., favorites. "Don't be snatching and catching like that," the boss went on. "You may burn your fingers. Go to your machines, I say! The soup will be served in separate plates. Never fear, it won't get cold."
The hands at last desisted gingerly, Jake and the whiskered operator carrying off two of the largest bundles. The others went to their machines empty-handed and remained seated, their hungry glances riveted to the booty, until they, too, were provided.
The little boss distributed the bundles with dignified deliberation. In point of fact, he was no less impatient to have the work started than any of his employees. But in him the feeling was overriden by a kind of malicious pleasure which he took in their eagerness and in the demonstration of his power over the men, some of whom he knew to have enjoyed a more comfortable past than himself. The machines of Jake and "De Viskes" led off in a duet, which presently became a trio, and in another few minutes the floor was fairly dancing to the ear-piercing discords of the whole frantic sextet.
In the excitement of the scene called forth by the appearance of the bundles, Jake's gloomy mood had melted away. Nevertheless, while his machine was delivering its first shrill staccatos, his heart recited a vow: "As soon as I get my pay I shall call on the installment man and give him a deposit for a ticket." The prospective ticket was to be for a passage across the Atlantic from Hamburg to New York. And as the notion of it passed through Jake's mind it evoked there the image of a dark-eyed young woman with a babe in her lap. However, as the sewing machine throbbed and writhed under Jake's lusty kicks, it seemed to be swiftly carrying him away from the apparition which had the effect of receding, as a wayside object does from the passenger of a flying train, until it lost itself in a misty distance, other visions emerging in its place.
Excerpted from Yekl and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan. Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION - Abraham Cahan cast in a new role,
Yekl - A tale of the New York Ghetto,
1 - JAKE AND YEKL,
2 - THE NEW YORK GHETTO,
3 - IN THE GRIP OF HIS PAST,
4 - THE MEETING,
5 - A PATERFAMILIAS,
6 - CIRCUMSTANCES ALTER CASES,
7 - MRS. KAVARSKY'S COUP D'ÉTAT,
8 - A HOUSETOP IDYL,
9 - THE PARTING,
10 - A DEFEATED VICTOR,
The Importeb Bribesroom - and other stories of the New York Ghetto,
The Importeb Bribesroom,
A Provisential Match,
A Sweatshop Romance,
A Ghetto Wessing,
What People are Saying About This
No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian's stories of Yiddish life…[Mr. Cahan] is a humorist, and his humor does not spare the sordid and uncouth aspects of the character whose pathos he so tenderly reveals.