A Jew on the Street

September 12, 2006 | , ,

East River
By Sholem Asch

444 pages. Kessinger. $36.95.

Every movement needs a slogan, and the Jewish Enlightenment—the idea, simply put, that Jewish traditions and modern western culture can coexist harmoniously—finds its tersest expression in Y. L. Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” The problem with this prescription, of course, is that while Jews are out there in the street being men, they tend to encounter women. One thing leads to another, a man invites a woman back to his tent for a nightcap, she agrees—and all of a sudden, Cinderella-like, the man transforms back into a Jew and the woman into a dreaded shiksa. Much hand-wringing, and occasional violence, ensues.

It’s an old, old story, particularly for those familiar with Jewish-American culture: if Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy doesn’t leap immediately to your mind, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer probably does. The most sensationalistic of all such tales, though, may be S. Y. Agnon’s fable, “The Lady and the Peddler” (1943), in which the shiksa turns out to be a cannibalistic vampire looking to gobble up her unsuspecting nebbish of a boyfriend (Agnon, remember, was born in a German-speaking milieu, and was, at the time he wrote the tale, watching from Palestine as Germany devoured its Jews).

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Agnon’s grim fairytale is Sholem Asch’s astonishing Yiddish novel East River (1946), one of the most thoughtful and nuanced explorations of Jewish-Christian intermarriage ever written. The diverse, impoverished blocks around 48th Street and the East River in Manhattan, in the boom years of Jewish immigration before WWI, serve as Asch’s setting. Under the watchful eye of Tammany Hall, Irish, Polish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants eke out meager livings; the Jewish and Irish block captains see eye to eye, and manage to tamp down any stray sparks of ethnic tension, keeping the neighborhood riot-free.

Peaceful coexistence has its consequences, though. A young, devout Irish Catholic girl, Mary McCarthy, finds herself involved with the Davidowsky family. Like one of Bernard Malamud’s characters, pious Moshe Wolf Davidowsky operates a grocery, but he can’t make a buck because he extends credit to all the neighbors—even those, like Mary’s father (“the block’s official anti-Semite”), who are irresponsible drunks. Grateful for the shopkeeper’s charity, Mary finds herself drawn to Jews generally, and particularly to Moshe Wolf’s eldest son Nathan, a paraplegic and intellectual, whose physical suffering reminds her of her beloved Christ.

Moshe Wolf dotes on Nathan, in whose intellectualism he sees a continuation of traditional Jewish scholarship, while his wife, Deborah, prefers their younger son, Irving. Like David Levinsky, Sammy Glick, and Duddy Kravitz, Irving Davidowsky observes the poverty around him and the suffering it occasions and decides, by the time he’s a teenager, that he will make a fortune by any means necessary. Buying and selling fabric remnants with pushcart vendors, he earns enough to supplement the family income, and he shells out for his brother’s physical therapy in a southern sanatorium.

With Nathan gone, Mary drifts into sweatshop labor and barely survives the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, harrowingly rendered in Asch’s precise and elegant prose. This horrific experience brings the Irish girl around to Irving’s acquisitive point of view, and she eagerly teams up with him in his efforts to establish a presence in the garment industry. Working closely together, and despite Irving’s virtual engagement to the block’s most desirable Jewess, the two driven young people tumble into a passionate affair.

As a novel’s set-up, none of this is unusual. What is startling, and what makes East River crucial reading, is the depth of sympathy and moral insight Asch brings to his description of the resulting familial and social chaos. Unlike many a young Jewish man and his shiksa, fictional or otherwise, Irving and Mary are not at all naïve: they realize how difficult life will be for them, and neither is willing to sacrifice either their religion or their family ties for the sake of their marriage.

Even more remarkable is the seriousness with which the novel treats Mary’s faith. Though he was briefly one of the most famous American authors in any language, Asch is often remembered now only for his audacious—some would say perverse—Yiddish-language trilogy on the life of Christ. In East River, however,the author’s evident fascination with Christianity allows him to humanize his non-Jewish protagonist impressively. Mary’s religion is treated with respect both by her husband, who does not insist she abandon the church for him, and by the author, who represents it as the equivalent of pious Moshe Wolf’s Jewish Orthodoxy in its sincerity and seriousness.

Asch steers a course between the utopianism and bitter cynicism of most novels about intermarriage, which propose either, on the one hand, that any resistance to exogamy is silly parochialism, or, on the other, that every intermarriage is doomed from the start. He skillfully teases out the personalities of his many characters, showing how the liaison between Mary and Irving challenges all of them—whether they’re socialists, dogmatists, atheists, or capitalists.

Like any good epic, East River makes room for a wide-ranging cast and a series of fascinating discourses on various social phenomena, from dance crazes to the church’s defense of child labor. As such, the book is a compact education in the history of New York’s Jews in the early years of the 20th century. Through Nathan’s intellectual wanderings, Asch engages alternatively with socialism, communism, labor unionism, anarchism, and Spinozist philosophy, and the book can be savored for its extraordinarily detailed panorama of Jewish food, dress, and social practices.

Most of all, though, Asch’s novel deserves continued and renewed attention for its unrivalled attempts to catalog the human costs of the inevitable attractions that spring up between Jews and non-Jews in modern secular environments. In other words, East River offers a profound consideration of what it means for a Jew to be a man (or a woman) on the American street.

[Originally published on JBooks.com.]