Retro Book Review: Lower East Side poverty paints sometimes horrific picture of immigrants’ dashed hopes
The cycle of poverty, hopelessness and despair among Jewish immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side is the thrust of “Jews Without Money,” the only novel by Michael Gold, published in 1930.
Semi-autobiographical, the book is narrated by Mikey as an adult looking back on his hardscrabble childhood in the tenements of the Lower East Side. While stories of immigrants have been romanticized in literature, there is nothing even remotely sentimental about this graphic portrait of a life of extreme poverty. In fact, Gold’s point is that all life’s hardships emanate from the villain that is poverty.
Mikey is one of three children. His parents, Herman and Katie, are Russian immigrants; Mikey is a first-generation American and is about 7 years old when the book opens. While he should be living a carefree life like other 7-year-old boys, his innocence is stolen on a daily basis; robbed of childhood, many children were forced to go to work instead of attend school lest the family starve. And they saw too much.
After his friend is almost molested, Mikey laments:
“Never would Joey or I quite trust a stranger again. Never would we walk without fear through the East Side. Now we knew it as a jungle, where wild beasts prowled, and toadstools grew in a poisoned soil — perverts, coke fiends, kidnappers, firebugs, Jack the Rippers.”
The mother is a colorful figure who holds the family together after his father is severely injured after falling off a scaffold; she mistrusts Christians; she is a ruthless negotiator, staring down the landlord, refusing to pay rent until he fixes the plumbing. But even though she is a buttinsky and never holds her tongue with anyone, she is able to work and take care of other neighbors who have fallen on even harder times. Mikey relates how he would sometimes wake up and find a family of immigrants in his bed, a result of his mother’s generosity.
“It’s impossible to live in a tenement without being mixed up with the tragedies and cockroaches of one’s neighbors. There’s no privacy in a tenement.”
His father is a storyteller and a dreamer who wants to open up a shop of his own. Each time he comes close to realizing his dreams of grandeur, another setback befalls the family and they end up near starvation.
As the book progressed, the father began to regret his choice to come to America, still slaving away after 15 years in the country.
The parents often remember their idyllic childhoods in the old country, disillusioned by an America that did not hold up its end of the bargain.
The streets of the Lower East Side are brimming with dashed hopes. There are gangsters, prostitutes, witch doctors and a continual influx of poverty-stricken immigrants. There are turf wars, gangs made up of little children, who defend their street boundaries:
“The East Side, for children, was a world plunged in eternal war. It was suicide to walk into the next block. Each block was a separate nation, and when a strange boy appeared, the patriots swarmed.”
Other vibrant characters appear within the pages of the book, serving as a contrast to the bleak surroundings and living conditions. There is Reb Samuel, who managed to start a congregation and bring over a rabbi from Europe; the gangster, Louis One Eye; Mendel Bum, the freeloader; Fyfka the Miser; the lonely Dr. Isidore Solow, who falls in love with Mikey’s Aunt Lena. Everyone has a mini story to tell.
Despite the gritty subject matter and the almost complete absence of happiness and hope, the book is nevertheless intriguing and eye opening, though disturbing and, at times, downright horrifying. However, Gold was able to dig right into the reader’s notions of reality with some insightful lines:
“America is so rich and fat, because it has eaten the tragedy of millions of immigrants.”
“Jews Without Money” is not the most literary of books. The sentences are often choppy, and the novel reads like a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by the framework of extreme poverty and wretched conditions.
Michael Gold’s real name was Itzok Granich. Although “Jews Without Money” was his only novel, he was also a playwright and editor of both socialist and communist publications. He was born to Jewish immigrants in 1894 and died in 1967.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.