Why should a somewhat stiff novella about Jewish immigrants in 1896 hold an American audience today? It shouldn’t, and if Congress had not reopened the Golden Door in 1965, ushering in the second great immigration of the 20th century, Abraham Cahan’s “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” might now be gathering dust on a library shelf next to other documents of a bygone era. Cahan was the man who made the Yiddish Forward America’s pre-eminent foreign-language newspaper — he was chief editor from 1903 until his death in 1951 — and it now appears that “Yekl,” his debut novel, will remain fresh as long as America remains a nation of immigrants.
I realized this recently when teaching the book to a group of undergraduates, half of whom are the children of immigrants (primarily from Pakistan and the Philippines) or immigrants themselves. The class, a seminar called “The American Experience,” contains a dozen students, none of them Jewish, and “Yekl” sits in a syllabus with 14 other books, most of them having nothing to do with Jews. In other words, the students were not predisposed to take an interest in Cahan’s story.
Just before “Yekl,” they read “My Antonia,” Willa Cather’s classic about a Bohemian girl on the Nebraska frontier, so they had an immigrant drama on their minds when we turned to Cahan, but they had not yet encountered such a drama from an insider’s viewpoint. And after beholding the idealized, earth-goddess figure of Antonia, my students were taken aback by the obnoxious city slicker who is the protagonist of “Yekl.”
For Jake Podkovnik, who rid himself of the Yiddish name “Yekl” as quickly as he abandoned his Judaism, America was the place for an extreme makeover. Jake is a young sweatshop worker with a handsome non-Semitic face, brawny non-Semitic arms and legs, a fierce regard for boxers and baseball players, and a poisonous contempt for greenhorns. His overriding goal is to be a “regely Yankee” — “Once I live in America I want to know that I live in America. Dot’sh a’ kin’ a man I am” Toward that end, he enjoys the life of a bachelor for three years, first in Boston and then on the Lower East Side of New York, picking up Americanized girlfriends as fast as he picks up American slang — until the day his wife, Gitl, and little boy, Yossele (whom he immediately renames “Joey”), arrive at Ellis Island to join him in the Goldene Medina. Then, in the novelistic equivalent of a New York second, Jake alienates Gitl by rejecting her in bed, ridiculing her old-fashioned ways and spurning her even as she struggles, for his sake, to Americanize — to oysgrin, “green herself out” — as quickly as possible.
“I hated him!” one student announced even before I finished taking attendance. “What a jerk!” another agreed, to a general nodding of heads.
I’ve taught “Yekl” on and off for 15 years, and am not surprised to hear students voice their dislike of Jake. But this time, as our discussion got going, I saw that a new element was present. In the past, students often complained that they had trouble understanding the broken and mutated English of Cahan’s characters, but when I asked this class if they had such a difficulty, several students of immigrant background raised their hands immediately and said no. Pleased and surprised, I explained that Jewish immigrants like those in “Yekl” spoke Yinglish and, again, looks of recognition surrounded me and hands shot up in the air. Several young women of Latino and Filipino descent likened Yinglish to Spanglish and Taglish and gave such examples as “lunchear,” Spanglish for “to eat lunch” (instead of the Spanish “almorzar”). They laughed knowingly when we recalled Gitl’s poignant effort to satisfy Jake by inserting “veenda” (window) into a Yiddish sentence in place of “fentzter,” paralleling the admixtures of English and Tagalog that prevail among many Filipinos today.
The word “greenhorn,” which appears frequently in “Yekl,” evoked another animated conversation. When a black student asked me what “green” and “greenhorn” meant, her classmates from immigrant families supplemented my answer by referring to FOBs, FOPS, ABCs and ABCDs. FOBs and FOPs are today’s greenhorns, people who are Fresh Off the Boat and Fresh Off the Plane. ABCs and ABCDs refer not to naive newcomers but to their highly assimilated children. An ABC is an American Born Chinese, whose language and way of life is fast-paced American and who is often considered nerdy or geeky. An ABCD, explained a student who emigrated from Pakistan, is an American Born Confused Desi. “Desi” denotes someone from India or Pakistan, and an ABCD, like an ABC, is so heartily Americanized as to provoke chagrin if not animosity within the ethnic cohort. A 1999 movie titled “ABCD” depicted, in the words of an online reviewer (himself a second-generation Indian in Vancouver), “many second-generation Indians who are American born and think they are too good for their own type. They become assimilated into the American sub-culture at such a young age that they have no sense of identity.” Shades of Yekl.
Jake’s identity crisis, stemming as it does from the stark contrast between American freedom and Jewish tradition, affected some of my students in ways that are personal. A young Arab American impressed by the individualist ethic of Ralph Waldo Emerson (we read “Self-Reliance” earlier in the semester) said he understood the forces of freedom that led Yekl to throw over the Old World customs he had come to feel were a burden. And two young Muslim women, one Pakistani and the other an American with a Pakistani father and a black mother, said they understood the rationale behind Gitl’s wig and headscarf — an Orthodox Jewish custom that American students sometimes find difficult to fathom — and Gitl’s agony on deciding to wear her own hair in a desperate final plea for Jake’s affection. (Gitl’s hair, a central symbol in “Yekl,” left a lasting mark on all the students in the class: The following week, they read Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in which the heroine, a Southern black woman, removes the headscarf that her husband demanded as a sign of obedience. They responded, seemingly in unison, “Just like Gitl!”)
It is a winning bet for a writer to create a character whom you love to love or love to hate, and in Jake Podkovnik, Abraham Cahan invented a new kind of American villain: the radical assimilationist — the likes of whom had never before appeared in an American novel of critical standing. William Dean Howells, the “father” of American realism, saw in this brash debut novella not only the accomplishment of a Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian immigrant executing a strong story in English, but also a larger statement about the peculiar demands of modern urban life. Cahan, declared Howells, was the first American writer to depict the social and psychological world of the immigrant with skill and insight. Although his prose is not good enough to place him in the top tier of novelists, Cahan created in “Yekl” an antihero of real existential force, a lost soul who speaks to Americans still and will do so as long as the travail of immigration shapes our national dreams and nightmares.