The French-Jewish literary critic Bernard Lazare wrote of Jews and other outsiders as “pariahs” or “parvenus.” Pariahs draw a sense of dignity, even grandeur, from their ostracism; parvenus aim to mimic their oppressors and suffer doubly for the attempt. I found myself reading a number of books about Jewish outsiders in recent weeks, and how their estrangement helped shape their own lives and the Jewish communities from which they sprang.
The Rise of Abraham Cahan
By Seth Lipsky
By the time he died in 1951 at age 91, Abraham Cahan had witnessed nearly all the upheavals that defined 20th-century American Jewry: The mass immigration from Eastern Europe, of which he was a part; the brief Golden Age of Yiddish culture; the triumph of Jewish liberalism in the form of the labor movement; the Holocaust; and the establishment of the State of Israel. But Cahan wasn’t just a witness to Jewish history — as the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, he was a central figure in all these epic events. Although the mythology often places Cahan in a downtown cafeteria or writing a homey advice column for the Forward’s “greenhorn” readers (neither image is inaccurate, by the way), Lipsky’s brief biography reminds us of the cosmopolitan figure Cahan cut in his day. He was a colleague of and correspondent with non-Jewish journalism giants like Lincoln Steffens and H.L. Mencken; a political kingmaker on the Lower East Side; and, with novels like The Rise of David Levinsky, a key interpreter of the growing Jewish community to the rest of America.
Lipsky, who founded and edited a reinvigorated English-language Forward in the 1990s, clearly looks to Cahan as a role model, especially in using the ethnic press as a vehicle for shaping politics outside of the “Jewish community.” But very few papers can claim the influence of Cahan’s Forward, which at its peak boasted a readership of 250,000 and turned Cahan into a global celebrity.
A Russian who could write in idiomatic English, Cahan is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. And yet, Lipsky notes, Cahan was ambivalent about his success, his secularism, and what he left behind, quoting a clearly autobiographical passage from David Levinsky: “David, the poor lad swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher’s Synagogue, seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak manufacturer.”
By Gary Shteyngart
A few years back, a former cultural editor of the English Forward noted that with the decline of Jewish immigration, Jewish literary inspiration would come from writers’ internal sense of estrangement. In the decade since, however, there has been an explosion of work by young Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Shteyngart is the best known of a wave that includes Lara Vapnyar, David Bezmozgis, and Boris Fishman. For an American-born Jew raised on Roth, Bellow, and Malamud, these writers seem to be working in what animators call the “uncanny valley” — their Jewish characters look like us, but are just different enough to shake our sense of what it means to be Jewish and American.
Shteyngart came from St. Petersburg to New York as a child. Dropped into the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, he was quickly made aware of the differences between his struggling immigrant parents and the more affluent parents of his classmates. Fellow students are cruel to the “Stinky Russian Bear” who is more likely to quote Tolstoy than Gilligan’s Island. “I want to shout back at them,” writes Shteyngart, “I’m a Jew like you, and doesn’t that matter more than where I was born? Why won’t you share a sticky Fruit Roll-Up with me?”
Like Cahan, Shteyngart’s lifelong task is to reconcile the Russian child he was — for whom both deprivation and high culture are twin inheritances — with the American he has become. At the 25th reunion of his Schechter class, he is forgiving. “What happened here, this was nobody’s fault,” he writes. “We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave.”
An Officer and a Spy
By Robert Harris
Lazare devoted himself to the cause of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer accused of treason by a cabal of French military and civilian figures in 1894. Lazare was also skeptical of the motivations of Georges Picquart, a French intelligence chief whose doubts about Dreyfus’s guilt would ultimately lead to his exoneration. Lazare never forgave Picquart his genteel anti-Semitism, or his role in the original prosecution.
Picquart is the narrator and hero of Harris’s engaging novel, which dramatizes the efforts of Picquart and other Dreyfusards to free the wrongly accused Jew. Like any good spy novel, there is gun play, murder, and a little sex. But the novel focuses squarely on the trail of forgeries and concoctions that put Dreyfus away and the criminal willingness of the French bureaucracy to continue the persecution of an innocent man rather than admit its own mistakes and bigotry. Dreyfus is mostly offstage, but in his cameo appearances you can feel the shame, pride, and frustration of an outsider demanding justice and recognition from the mainstream he longs to join.