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The Rise of David Levinsky

This month, the Downtown Kehillah, which is a consortium of 17 Manhattan synagogues and Jewish organizations, together with the Forward present the first-ever downtown Jewish community book club. Beginning October 16 and continuing through December 16, some 4,000 people will be reading “The Rise of David Levinsky,” the 1917 tour de force, set in downtown Jewish New York and written by the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan. In addition, discussion groups, events, readings and walking tours will all be focused on an exploration of the book — putting Cahan’s masterpiece at the center of an extraordinary community-building effort.

To start us off, we’ve included an excerpt from “The Rise of David Levinsky” (please see above). For more information, please visit

My landlady was a robust little woman, compact and mobile as a billiard-ball, continually bustling about, chattering and smiling or laughing. She was a good-natured, silly creature, and her smile, which automatically shut her eyes and opened her mouth from ear to ear, accentuated her kindliness as well as her lack of sense. When she did not talk she would hum or sing at the top of her absurd voice the then popular American song “Climbing Up the Golden Stairs.” She told me the very next day that she had been married less than a year, and one of the first things I noticed about her was the pleasure it gave her to refer to her husband or to quote him. Her prattle was so full of, “My husband says, says my husband,” that it seemed as though the chief purpose of her jabber was to parade her married state and to hear herself talk of her spouse. The words, “my husband,” were music to her ears. They actually meant, “Behold, I am an old maid no longer!”

She was so deeply impressed by the story of my meeting with Mr. Even, whose son-in-law was her landlord, and by the amount he spent on me that she retailed it among her neighbors, some of whom she invited to the house in order to exhibit me to them.

Her name was Mrs. Dienstog, which is Yiddish for Tuesday. Now Tuesday is a lucky day, so I saw a good omen in her, and thanked God her name was not Monday or Wednesday, which, according to the Talmud, are unlucky.

One of the first things I did was to make up a list of the English words and phrases which our people in this country had adopted as part and parcel of their native tongue. This, I felt, was an essential step towards shedding one’s “greenhornhood,” an operation every immigrant is anxious to dispose of without delay. The list included, “floor,” “ceiling,” “window,” “dinner,” “supper,” “hat,” “business,” “job,” “clean,” “plenty,” “never,” “ready,” “anyhow,” “never mind,” “hurry up,” “all right,” and about a hundred other words and phrases.

I was quick to realize that to be “stylishly” dressed was a good investment, but I realized, too, that to use the Yiddish word for “collar” or “clean” instead of their English correlatives was worse than to wear a dirty collar.

I wrote down the English words in Hebrew characters and from my landlady’s dictation, so that “never mind,” for example, became “nevermine.”

When I came home with a basket containing my first stock of wares, Mrs. Dienstog ran into ecstasies over it. She took to fingering some of my collar-buttons and garters, and when I protested she drew away, pouting.

Still, the next morning, as I was leaving the house with my stock, she wished me good luck ardently; and when I left the house she ran after me, shouting: “Wait, Mr. Levinsky. I’ll buy something off you ‘for a lucky start.’” She picked out a paper of pins, and she paid me the price and she said, devoutly, “May this little basket become one of the biggest stores in New York.”

My plan of campaign was to peddle in the streets for a few weeks — that is, until my “greenness” should wear off — and then to try and sell goods to tenement housewives. I threw myself into the business with enthusiasm, but with rather discouraging results. I earned what I then called a living, but made no headway. As a consequence, my ardor cooled off. It was nothing but a daily grind. My heart was not in it. My landlord, who was a truck-driver, but who dreamed of business, thought that I lacked dash, pluck, tenacity; and the proprietor of the “peddler supply store” in which I bought my goods seemed to be of the same opinion, for he often chaffed me on the smallness of my bill. On one occasion he said:

“If you want to make a decent living you must put all other thoughts out of your mind and think of nothing but your business.”

Only my smiling little landlady was always chirping words of encouragement, assuring me that I was not doing worse than the average beginner. This and her cordial, good-natured manner were a source of comfort to me. We became great friends. She taught me some of her broken English; and I let her talk of her husband as long as she wanted. One of her weaknesses was to boast of holding him under her thumb, though in reality she was under his. Ceaselessly gay in his absence, she would become shy and reticent the moment he came home. I never saw him talk to her save to give her some order, which she would execute with feverish haste. Still, in his surly, domineering way he was devoted to her.

I was ever conscious of my modern garb, and as I walked through the streets I would repeatedly throw glances at store windows, trying to catch my reflection in them. Or else I would pass my fingers across my temples to feel the absence of my side-locks. It seemed a pity to me that Matilda could not see me now.

One of the trifles that have remained embedded in my memory from those days is the image of a big, florid-faced huckster shouting at the top of his husky voice: “Strawberri-i-ies, strawberry-i-ies, five cents a quart!”

I used to hear him and see him every morning through the windows of my lodging; and to this day, whenever I hear the singsong of a strawberry-peddler I scent the odors of New York as they struck me upon my arrival, in 1885, and I experience the feeling of uncertainty, homesickness, and lovesickness that never left my heart at that period.

I often saw Antomir in my dreams.

The immigrants from the various Russian, Galician, or Roumanian towns usually have their respective synagogues in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago. So I sought out the house of worship of the Sons of Antomir.

There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of small congregations on the East Side, each of which had the use of a single room, for the service hours on Saturdays and holidays, in a building rented for all sorts of gatherings — weddings, dances, lodge meetings, trade-union meetings, and the like. The Antomir congregation, however, was one of those that could afford a whole house all to themselves. Our synagogue was a small, rickety, frame structure.

It was for a Saturday-morning service that I visited it for the first time. I entered it with throbbing heart. I prayed with great fervor. When the devotions were over I was disappointed to find that the congregation contained not a single worshipper I had known or had heard of at home. Indeed, many of them did not even belong to Antomir. When I told them about my mother there was a murmur of curiosity and sympathy, but their interest in me soon gave way to their interest in the information I could give each of them concerning the house and street that had once been his home.

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