Shipping the Self to America: The Perils of Assimilation in Glatshteyn's and Shapiro's Immigration Novels

By Garrett, Leah | MELUS, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Shipping the Self to America: The Perils of Assimilation in Glatshteyn's and Shapiro's Immigration Novels


Garrett, Leah, MELUS


Much of the critical evaluation of United States immigration novels has overlooked the multitude of works that are written in languages other than English. In fact, with the exception of a few recent and notable books, discussions of immigrant narratives rarely include any non-English writings. (1) By considering these overlooked works, the way we understand America shifts from the perspectives of those who have, linguistically, assimilated successfully to those whose narratives challenge the monolinguistic "melting pot." For multilingual authors, the decision to write in a native language is often a political one that lays a claim for the primacy of the ethnic voice over the Americanized one. Choosing to write of their experiences in native languages, these authors assert a resistance to linguistic assimilation' that is often matched by highly critical portrayals of the United States. To read and analyze non-English immigration writings is to bring neglected voices into the American conversation on immigration and assimilation.

This essay will consider two Yiddish narratives written by authors who chose Yiddish over English: Lamed Shapiro's 1910 Oyfn yam (On the Sea) and Jacob Glatshteyn's 1938 Ven Yash iz geforn (When Yash Went Forth). Both authors were adept at English but made the decision to use the native language, I believe, as a means to communicate specifically with a Jewish, Yiddish-speaking audience. (2) The readership either still lived in Eastern Europe or had immigrated to the United States. The novels document the pressures Jews face, or will face, in the United States, and show ways for Jewish readers to retain their ethnic and religious identity against these pressures. As is typical of other Yiddish immigration works, the hazards of assimilation are the focus, and Yiddish, a language resistant to assimilation, a tool to fight the pressures of Americanization. (3)

As Matthew Frye Jacobson has suggested, a question that comes to the forefront in non-English narratives is how much the author writes from the perspective of an emigrant rather than an immigrant (110). By remaining linguistically housed in the original language and writing for like language users, the narratives speak as much about the community and place from which the immigrant originates as about the specifics of Americanization. Therefore these narratives not only offer neglected perspectives on America, but also expand our understanding of the lands and communal systems of different immigrant groups.

In American Jewish immigration novels written in English, Americanization is frequently a hazardous process filled with struggles to find a secure identity that incorporates both Jewish and American cultural influences. The dilemmas of Americanization are played out in a variety of forms: struggles with parents who are representative of "Old World" values (See Yezierska, Schneider, and Levin), disillusionment that economic success is not matched by personal fulfillment (See Cahan and Ornitz), and intermarriages with Christians that offer an outward sign of assimilation accompanied by family discord. (4) Most Jewish works in English before the 1920s, though marked by ambivalence, were nevertheless fairly optimistic about the process of assimilation. (5) In the late 1920s and 1930s, a shift occurred matching the rise of nativist pressures, and a number of writings appeared that challenged the American dream and the virtues of Americanization (see Fine, "American-Jewish"). Examples include Ludwig Lewisohn's 1928 novel The Island Within, which documents the discriminations faced by Jews in America, even those most overtly assimilated, and Michael Gold's 1930 proletarian novel, Jews Without Money, which portrays the abuse of poor immigrants on the Lower East Side by greedy capitalists and corrupt leaders.

Jewish immigration novels in English by Yiddish-speaking natives offer important insights into how linguistically assimilated immigrants understand the tensions of acclimation. …

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