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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

June 5, 2019: Jewish American Journeys: Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska

[On June 1, 1916, Louis Brandeis was confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the first Jewish American Justice. So this week I’ll highlight the American stories of Brandeis and four other exemplary Jewish Americans, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our best Jewish Studies scholars!]
On the many distinctions and telling similarity in two compelling Jewish American books.

One evening about eight years ago, my younger son taught me more about the Jewish holiday of Purim, in a couple-minute, mostly understandable and criminally cute narrative based on stories they learned in their Jewish Community Center preschool, than I had learned in my prior thirty-plus years of life. There are various ironies of my personal and familial identity illustrated by that anecdote, including the reason for all eight of my maternal great-grandparents’ immigrations to America (to escape anti-Semitic pogroms in late 19th century Eastern Europe), the complicated religious and cultural continuities and changes across my maternal grandparents’ lives and then especially my Mom’s, my own relationship to this Jewish American heritage, and, most ironically and yet most tellingly of 21st century America, the simple fact that my sons, who are a quarter Jewish American and a quarter English-German American and half Chinese American, have (as attendees of that JCC preschool for a few years) already learned and engaged with and performed more of Jewish culture and story in their first decades of life than I ever have and likely ever will.

While all of that is, of course, first and foremost about myself and my multi-generational American family and identity, past, present, and future, it can also connect to an interesting pair of youthful literary characters—one real and autobiographical, one invented and fictional, but both Jewish American children whose lives and voices have a great deal to tell us about family, faith, and our national identities and stories—created by talented women writers in the early 20th century. Young Mary Antin is the protagonist of Antin’s cultural autobiography, The Promised Land (1912), a book that takes its readers from the Pale of a Russian village to a nearly unequivocal celebration of the American Dream as this particular family and narrator find and live it; young Sara Smolinsky is the narrator and heroine of Anzia Yezierska’s realistic and modernist novel Bread Givers (1925), a work which begins with its ten year old narrator and her family already in New York and chronicles especially the cross-generational struggle between Sara and her domineering scholarly father Reb. Like their works and tones, the two writers seem in many ways fully distinct: Yezierska published half a dozen novels and multiple collections of short stories in a long and successful literary career that led her to Hollywood and a romantic relationship with John Dewey; Antin’s few published works, including the autobiography and one other book, They Who Knock at Our Gates (1914), a political argument for tolerant immigration policies, appeared within a few years of each other, after which she traveled for a few more years giving speeches about immigration before largely disappearing from the public eye.

They are indeed two very different Jewish American women and authors, and these books, like their others, certainly deserve to be read and analyzed on their own terms. Yet one very interesting and telling similarity lies in the emphasis that both authors and texts place on the wisdom and awareness possessed by their very young protagonists. (A feature shared by another, slightly later Jewish American novel, Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep [1934].) These young women are, of course, being created by older authors, and yet I would argue that neither the thirty-something Antin nor the forty-something Yezierska implies that young Mary’s or Sara’s perception and prescience are creations of their older selves. Instead, it is precisely these protagonists’ youth, and concurrent their explicitly hybrid Jewish American identities, when contrasted with the older voices and more static identities illustrated by both their more Old World-centered family members and their initial encounters with native Americans, that seems to give Mary and Sara their unique and impression perspectives, their visions (whether, again, more positively or negatively) of the communities (familial, spiritual, cultural, and national) in which they are growing up. A compelling lesson for all Americans, and one more reason to read these unique works by two hugely talented Jewish American writers.
Next journey tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jewish Americans you’d highlight?

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