Mr. Cahan’s Neighborhood
Republished together by Dover in 1970, Cahan’s 1896 novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” and his 1898 collection, “The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto,” are not “Dubliners.”
Cahan overwrites. In fact, he is guilty of crossing the street — crossing the street and jumping on a trolley — to avoid le mot juste. His sense of plotting is somewhat predictable (America makes love and marriage between immigrants difficult), and the transliterated dialogue can sometimes be trying: “Once I live in America, I want to know what I live in America. Dot’sh a’ kin’ a man I am!”
But for all the faults of this collection, there’s something winning here. Fact is, I loved watching Cahan’s characters become Yankees (the title character, Yekl, transforms into Jake once he lands on American soil). This, “laddas and gentlemen,” is the world of our great-grandparents, and we’d do well to eavesdrop on their lives, if only to figure out how we got to here from there.
In the scene below (from the eighth section of “The Imported Bridegroom”), Shaya, a Talmud prodigy, confesses a secret to his betrothed, Flora.