Academic journal article American Jewish History

Embracing World of Our Fathers: The Context of Reception

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Embracing World of Our Fathers: The Context of Reception

Article excerpt

Reflecting on the almost universally positive and wildly popular reception garnered by The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, Irving Howe commented with sarcasm that "Andy Warhol said that everyone in America is famous for fifteen minutes. My fifteen came ... when World of Our Fathers, to the surprise of both me and my publisher, reached the bestseller list for some weeks." After retelling his generally unpleasant experiences of appearing on talk shows and being interviewed for newspapers (and even being recognized in a restaurant and asked for his autograph), Howe explored the reason for his and the book's success:

   But the success of my book: what could that mean? That a good many people,
   most of them probably Jewish, hurried out to buy it could be explained, I
   suspect, not by any authentic desire to "find their roots" (they hardly had
   to wait for me, if that was what they wanted), but a readiness to say
   farewell in a last fond gesture. World of Our Fathers enabled them to cast
   an affectionate backward glance at the world of their fathers before
   turning their backs upon it forever and moving on, as they had to, to a
   world their fathers would neither have accepted nor understood. My book was
   not a beginning, it was still another step to the end.(1)

Howe correctly characterized the reaction to the book. Unlike his other works, his studies of Edith Wharton and William Faulkner, his translations of Yiddish short stories and poetry, which received little attention and generated paltry sales, World of Our Fathers was a phenomenon of 1970s mass culture. Reviewed in magazines and newspapers around the country, honored with the prestigious National Book Award, excerpted and quoted from,(2) chosen by Book-of-the-Month Club, stocked in bookstores, both general and Jewish, with a good chunk of its sales made for bar and bat mitzvah gifts, and invoked by rabbis and Jewish educators, World of Our Fathers helped make the east European Jewish immigration to the United States and the Lower East Side of New York subjects of broad discussion, public performance, and multiple representations.

Howe himself basked in the public limelight. Jewish community centers, synagogues, and national Jewish organizations invited him to speak about the book and its meaning for American Jews. With a twist of irony, Howe's standard talk to Jewish audiences proclaimed that American Jews could not count on the immigrant experience, the topic chronicled in his book, to sustain Jewishness. Addressing the plenary session of the American Jewish Committee's seventieth annual meeting in 1976, Howe warned that the story of the east European Jewish immigration, its images and metaphors, represented just "a sanctioned fragment of memory." That fragment was losing its salience, but "if you have nothing better, is it not better to have a memory?"(3) Hardly an upbeat message, it did make the point that World of Our Fathers had a role to play beyond just the imparting of information.

Whatever message he offered from the platform in his talks, Howe was greeted as a culture hero. Community centers staged "Lower East Side" fairs to accompany his presentations, and the strains of klezmer music wafted from the social halls at the receptions afterwards. Travelling from one Jewish community to another to plug the book, Howe became, in his own words, "an institution.(2)

Howe reacted to his and the book's success with unwarranted cynicism, attributing the book's success to the desire of American Jews, middle-class suburbanites, to once and forever sever their connections to the world of their fathers (and mothers). True, American Jews had no interest in moving back into cramped apartments in airless tenements, no desire to live once again in poor crowded urban neighborhoods where they might shop at pushcarts and make do with faulty and limited plumbing. …

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