Orphans and prodigies: rediscovering young Jewish immigrant "marginals".
A youth-culture perspective on Jewish immigrant history in America, for instance, might involve delving into the loss of parental authority in immigrant households; the maintenance or weakening of linguistic and religious norms in the face of the "external" culture's imprint on young people's experiences; the intervention into such matters by socializing institutions (public schools, the social services sector, institutions like the Educational Alliance and its counterparts outside New York City); or the valorization of youthfulness and independence in modern American culture. These and other similar issues represent a specific instance of "crisis and re-adaptation," a perspective deployed by veteran scholars of intergenerational relations such as Glen Elder. Elder viewed his research on American youth in the Depression era as a corrective to understandings of social change that were based solely on stable, "normative," and gradual development within pre-existing social institutions. Elder, in turn, cited the much older collaborative work on immigrant households done by the University of Chicago's William I. Thomas and Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki (The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1920), that "made a convincing case for studying [the dynamics of social change and personality adaptation] at points of discontinuity or incongruence between person and environment." Similarly, other recent scholars have underscored the importance of "pivotal historical events that can abruptly alter the ... matrix for young people's development." (2)
Jewish immigrant youth, seen as a special social category, is perhaps suited more than most to approaching the history of Jewish immigration. Nearly all migrant streams possess a relative bias toward the younger age cohorts, which is a significant contributing factor for understanding migration history. For the Jewish case this is rather more important than for some other groups, since Jews coming from eastern Europe to America included more children and had a lower median age than other immigrant groups. (3) Indeed, a good deal of attention has been paid to intergenerational issues in Jewish immigrant and second-generation households. (4)
That having been said, it must be emphasized that such broad categories as "youth" and "second generation" are themselves overdetermined. Even within a generational cohort with a strongly defined style or "character," derived from the events it has experienced, there are significant differences in the subjective experiences of individuals, just as it is impossible to isolate the experiences of younger people from those of their elders in any given historical period. It will simply not do to overessentialize the notion of "youth" as a cohesive concept. Here I would strongly agree with social historian John Modell, who placed historical change first and birth cohort in a secondary role, in delineating his theory of generational development:
[P]erceptions, values, and understandings that arose [out of altered historical circumstances] were not unique to particular cohorts. Yet environment did not impinge uniformly on people of different ages .... My commitment is to understand the life course as a series of individual decisions that are not determined but are nevertheless structured by external phenomena. (5)
Therefore, in this essay I take the life-histories approach, focusing particularly on the stress attendant upon the arrival and subsequent adaptation of young people in a new culture. This approach, as it has been utilized by some recent scholars, is a way to counterbalance conventional narratives of the Jewish immigrant household and its progeny. It allows us to hold up the larger, collectively sanctioned image for closer scrutiny, insofar as "minor voices" are often at odds with mainstream trends, yet also reveal compelling versions of immigrant life that demand our attention. The collectivist striving of "memory" can best be neutralized by opting for the particularism of individual experience. Steven Zipperstein's recent intellectual biography of the Chicago-bred writer, Isaac Rosenfeld, for instance, helps us to see the disfunctionality of families, economic marginality, and psycho-sexual dissonance as critical issues in American Jewish life and letters. Other scholars who have looked at previously unpublished immigrant memoirs have, similarly, exposed unsuspected layers of self-doubt and family dislocation. (6)
Along analogous lines, scholars who oversaw the translation and publication earlier in this decade of some of the autobiographies of Polish Jewish youth generated by the interwar YIVO Institute in Vilna, underscored the significance of sudden or rapid social change in accounting for the surprising variety of young people's responses. In the 1930s, young Polish Jews were, as these observers put it, separated by a gulf of difference from their parents' experiences, living lives that seemed "full of uncharted dangers and unprecedented aspirations." Still, rather than conforming to a collective generational model, these first-person narratives seem "jumbled and convoluted and essentially impervious to simple categorization." To the eyes of the contemporary reader, the autobiographies destabilize standard assumptions about interwar Jewish life. Compounding the "idiosyncratic" and "hybridized" character of the identity-formation accounts in these self-narratives is the fact that some of them also upset stereotypical expectations about Jewish "family values," for example. (7)
In taking note of these historiographical and theoretical issues, I am also mindful of Karl Mannheim's classic strictures against an overdetermined notion of "generation" as a singular cultural category. For Mannheim the generational experience--in the sense of a common cultural and ideological mindset--is bound up in the first instance with a zone of intimate peer-group circles ("generation units"), within which specific life circumstances are processed. (8) Mannheim's close attention to the small-group setting for the gestation of young people's generational self-awareness was perhaps rooted in the early twentieth-century German cultural perspective, which stressed the small fellowship communion as a venue of symbolic importance among youth. (9) Apart from noting the complex inner dynamics of youth culture, Mannheim introduced into his discussion such paradigmatic figures as "forerunners" and "intermediaries," that is, younger adults whose preoccupations and views of life do not match the worldview of the rest of their older peers. Ahead of their time, as it were, they find themselves living as somewhat isolated figures, mediating between their own generation and the next. (10) Extending Mannheim's typological insights allows us to speak more confidently about the importance of both marginality and individuality within generations.
In this spirit, I wish to recall seemingly marginal figures from the Jewish immigration era, rather than dwell upon an imagined mainstream. In doing so, it may be possible to recapture what was surely an essential feature of the immigrant experience: namely, the effects of strangeness. The collectivized memory of immigration places a considerable emphasis on the successful symbiosis between immigrants and their new home--"home" being a highly suggestive metaphor of self-possession and self-confidence. (11) In refocusing on those who fall into less domesticated patterns, we return to a view of the immigrant experience as primarily an outward journey into the unknown. I want to brush the collective Jewish immigrant narrative against the grain as much as possible, because by doing so we are apt to release the discourse of immigrant historiography just a bit from the grip of collective memory.
Orphans and Prodigies
In surveying the terrain of Jewish immigrant society in America between the 1890s and the 1920s, I propose to add to Mannheim's "forerunner" and "intermediary" prototypes two more marginal types, which I dub "orphans" and "prodigies." Orphans and prodigies, for these purposes, are individuals who may consider themselves to be alone in the world or who seem to us (and to their peers) to represent singular, unattached figures. In the historical context of Jewish mass migration, I suggest that figures of this sort symbolically negotiate a solitary mid-passage for themselves, navigating between fellow immigrants and the surrounding society.
My "orphans" and "prodigies" are in some cases overlapping categories. I have in mind a set of extraordinarily talented young immigrants whose achievements in literature, academic endeavors, the sciences, and public service were well recognized, at least for part if not all of their lifetimes. Their singularity as talented achievers notwithstanding, some of them also experienced emotional or social isolation that orphaned them from their immediate or wider social settings--their families and their Jewish contemporaries. Some were in the literal sense orphaned of one or both parents.
Indeed, orphanhood occurs with some regularity, and with good reason, as a trope in works of literature that represent the immigrant experience. (12) The protagonists of some of the earliest narratives of immigrant Jewish Americanization conform to this image, including the character of David Quixano in Israel Zangwill's play, The Melting Pot (1908), David Levinsky in Abraham Cahan's novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), and extending to the virtual self-birth claimed by the young Mary Antin in The Promised Land (1912), where she is notionally "orphaned" from the former person she once was. The idiom of orphanhood is certainly explicit in the case of the "lucky orphan," Motl, son of Peyse the cantor, the eponymous hero of Sholem Aleichem's novel about an immigrant youngster from eastern Europe (on which he was still working when he died in New York in 1916). (13)
Orphanhood is as good a metaphor as any for severed roots, for becoming displaced, and for a kind of autonomy--of life "on their own," a common enough experience in the lives of many immigrants to America. Autonomy and loss are coequal points of departure for understanding both the immigrant experience and orphanhood. As one observer put it, orphanhood is all about the challenge of forging a new identity. (14) The prevalence of culturally available tropes of alienation, separation, and individual sensibility in modern culture--modern Jewish culture being no exception--is too well known to require in-depth analysis here. (15)
In addition, the term is a convenient way to conceptually isolate a specific expression of "youth," for orphanhood jarringly interrupts intergenerational relatedness. If we are to speak of the young as cultural change-agents and to conceive of their role as something distinct from larger social and cultural dynamics (class, politics, religion, assimilation), then both the "real" and metaphorical orphans are particularly useful as figures denoting a separate social identity and the search for a moral code with which to replace parental guidance.
Specific examples abound. Alfred Kazin wrote of his father as an orphaned and, in an emotional sense, a damaged person: "My father will never get over the shock of his father's death, the sudden return to Russia, the orphan asylum, and the long absence from his mother. The older I get, the more orphaned he will seem to me." (16) In a later era, we have the famous pair of Rosenberg orphans, Robert and Michael Meeropol. (17)
"Orphan," it should also be remembered, was an elastic category that embraced children with one living parent, or none, as well as many who had families but were lodged and educated for at least part of their lives in institutions called "orphan asylums" that provided foster care. During the Depression of the 1930s efforts were undertaken to "humanize" such institutions by imbuing them with a child-centered developmental philosophy as compared with an authoritarian regime of "what is for the children's own good." (18)
Prodigies, a category I will apply with some care and circumspection, are also recognizably a force for cultural change in their own right by virtue of their "uncanny" abilities, talent, and innovative thought. Apart from Mary Antin, whose literary and public-speaking star burned very brightly but very briefly before her personal world was rent asunder by irreparable marital crisis and the long, lingering decline of her mental health, a list of prodigies who were young immigrants would have to include such luminaries as theologian and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan; Harvard philosopher and historian Harry Austryn Wolfson; artist Max Weber; composer Irving Berlin; and a host of others. Berlin, in fact, was also an orphan: his father died when the young Irving was eight, just three years after the family moved to America.
I will not argue that seminal figures were always lone wolves (though some have made such an argument before, (19) and there are many examples of those who were, even among the names already mentioned here), or that young immigrants were always "orphaned" by the experience of family uprooting. I simply offer a few case histories of young and in some sense marginal Jewish immigrants, each of whom may be said to have borne the cost of orphanhood (real or figurative) or who "discovered America" in a remarkable way. In so doing they experienced and in some cases helped to engender cultural change. Two of my cases are postmigration memoirists whose written autobiographical accounts are well known to historians of the Jewish migration from eastern Europe: Rose Gollub Cohen (1880-1925) and Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947). My third case, Ephraim Eliyahu Lisitzky (1885-1962), authored his immigrant memoir 'Eleh toledot 'adam (The Chronicles of a Man) in Hebrew, and is perhaps a more obscure figure, though in his day he was well known in American Hebraist circles. (20) The fourth and final case is Simon Kuznets (1901-1985), the Nobel Prize-winning economist to whom we owe one of the most important statistical studies of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States.
Rose Cohen and Ephraim Lisitzky are both orphaned figures in some sense. Morris Raphael Cohen and Simon Kuznets (like Irving Berlin) are simultaneously orphans and prodigies. All four arrived in the United States at a young age (ranging from childhood to early adulthood, respectively). Their life stories reflect the changes attendant upon migration and the terms under which these young arrivals negotiated their way into a new culture. They also collectively represent a wide span of historical time. Three of them (Rose Cohen, Morris Cohen, and Lisitzky) belonged to the same birth cohort (the early 1880s). In contrast, they died as members of quite different historical generations: the 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1960s, respectively. The fourth member of the quartet, Simon Kuznets, was born at the turn of the twentieth century and represents a much later generation, having survived to his eighty-fourth year.
Rose Cohen's memoir, Out of the Shadow (1918, republished in 1995), was written when the author, a young woman living on New York's Lower East Side, was undergoing her first real exposure to American culture while grappling with an unspecified and possibly depression-related illness, to which she ultimately succumbed. As a twelve-year-old, she left her mother and siblings in Europe to join her father in New York. The rest of the family would follow a year later. In an immigrant story typical of many youngsters at that time, Rokhl Gollub (as she was known then) immediately entered the workforce. She would have to await her later teenage years before beginning to read works of English literature.
Her exposure to the world beyond the tenements and sweatshops owed a great deal to Lillian Wald of the famous Henry Street or Nurses' Settlement. (21) Wald arranged for the young Rose to be hospitalized uptown at Presbyterian Hospital, where she stayed for three months. In subsequent years, under Wald's supervision, Rose Gollub spent summers convalescing at a Connecticut farm as well as periodically doing light work through the Nurses' Settlement. It was then, during her young adult years, that she attended the "Breadwinners' College," a program of evening courses at the Educational Alliance conducted by a group of young immigrant intellectuals, including Morris Raphael Cohen, and it was there that she embarked on the process of writing her autobiography. (22)
Rose Cohen was not literally an orphan, but at age ten she experienced separation from her father when he left Russia. Then, as noted, she was parted from her mother and siblings for a year at the sensitive age of twelve, traveling to America in the company of a maiden aunt. Her memoir describes her shock of nonrecognition upon finding her father--once the "most pious" man in town--with his beard trimmed, his peyes (earlocks) shorn, his long kapote (caftan) abandoned. In one graphically recalled moment from her childhood, Cohen describes how on her first Saturday in New York her father offered her a piece of fruit from a peddler's stall, which she gladly accepted, assuming that he would pay the stall-owner the following day (as he would have done back home). Upon seeing her father reach into his pocket for a coin to pay the vendor for the fruit right then and there on the holy Sabbath, she threw her melon slice onto the pavement and ran from her father in disgust and horror. She only stopped running when she realized she was far from home. (23) Rose appears in this episode to have been "orphaned" by her father's unacceptable act--a betrayal that swept away her "old" father, as she had remembered him.
In due course, however, Rose conveys to the reader that she became more accepting of such changes and even outdid her father's progress in acculturating to American ways, especially in her knowledge of English, which her father never really mastered. "Of my father and myself, I was the more Americanised [sic]," she wrote. (24) It was Rose who chose English names for her siblings and who eventually prevailed upon her reluctant mother to abandon her traditional head scarf:
Mother had been here only a short time when I noticed that she looked older and more old-fashioned than father.... [It] was so with most of our women, especially those that wore wigs or kerchiefs on their heads.... At first she would not even listen to me. But I sat down in her lap and began to coax and reason... [and] I finally succeeded. "As you see," she said, "I am not staying far behind." (25)
The extent to which Cohen had come to harbor nontraditional, more American ideas also exposed a generational difference (and perhaps a gendered difference) between her point of view and her father's. Still in her teens, Rose was betrothed, largely through the good offices of a negotiation conducted behind her back by her parents, to a man who ran a small grocery nearby. Rose reluctantly resigned herself to the match, only to break off the engagement soon afterward. Rose's father was willing to compromise his old-world upbringing when it came to the world of work, monetary exchange, and his personal attire and grooming. But it was his daughter--not he (or his wife, for that matter)--who drew the line at surrendering her new-found independence. (26)
Rose Cohen nevertheless cuts a sad, orphaned figure, for despite her later accomplishments--an initial publishing success, a brief marriage, and the gift of self-knowledge--her memoir drifts toward self-questioning and despondency. Reflecting on her late teenage years and the non-defined long-term ill health that plagued her, Cohen tellingly wrote of "procuring" an exit pass from her parents and home, not for the sake, but at the expense, of adult maturity and autonomy:
The illness had procured me that freedom from home [through the good works of Lillian Wald] for which I longed. But though I was so free, now less than ever my destiny seemed in my own hands. The illness and my [settlement house] friends seemed to steer it and I did meekly whatever I was told. I asked no questions. I offered no resistance. (27)
We are left at the end of the narrative with representatives of two generations: Rose and her brother on the one side, and their parents on the other. Rose's brother has won a place at Columbia University and received a coveted award for a prize essay. Rose's mother is depicted as overcome with emotion: "Mother had tears in her eyes. Her boy was at a great university! Her boy's article was valued second to that of a superintendent of Industrial Schools!" (28)
Rose's father, barely literate in English and eking out a meager living, responds to the good news on a note of surprised vindication. With very little to show for his own venture into the wilderness, he finds it difficult to overcome a deep-seated skepticism about America and the price it has exacted from them all. "Father looked on at us silently, unbelieving; then he said, "Ah! After all this is America." (29) In reconstructing this scene, it was perhaps Rose herself who sought to insert a note of self-vindication as the family's "Americaniser [sic]." Tellingly, she is not the one who voices this sentiment, placing it instead in her father's mouth, and it is possible in retrospect to see this in the context of her depression and untimely death (with hints of possible suicide). (30)
The life of the family as portrayed in Rose Cohen's memoir reflects the probability that parents and children alike are caught up in the process of cultural transformation that accompanied immigration. In looking for generational patterns of change, however, it may be that younger people differed from their elders not in the direction of change, but rather in terms of degree or intensity. (31)
Morris Raphael Cohen
Morris Raphael Cohen was born the same year as Rose Gollub and arrived in America at the same time (1892). They lived only a few blocks apart while growing up and it is possible (though it is not indicated by specific evidence) that they may have met one another at the Educational Alliance when Rose was taking instruction there. They did cross paths later on, when Rose spent time at the MacDowell artists' and writers' colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1923-1924, shortly before her untimely death, while Morris Cohen was also in residence there. (32)
Morris Cohen was one of America's most prominent philosophers between the two world wars. A professor at the City College of New York and a lecturer at the New School for Social Research, he was also an editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas and Jewish Social Studies, a founding member of the American Association of University Professors, and a respected author. Although his obvious gifts were already recognized in his childhood (we may place him in the "prodigy" group), his early path in life was strewn with hardship, flail health, self-doubt and despondency, and a chronic lack of work. Here, perhaps, it may be said that he also fits the metaphorical mold of orphanhood. Coincidentally, he was helped at one point by Lillian Wald, Rose Cohen's benefactress. Cohen recalled his first decade as a philosophy professor as a time when he felt out of place, outside the already existing schools of thought. Indeed, he called the chapter of his book that treated this period "A Stray Dog among the Philosophers." (33)
As a child, Cohen was separated from his immediate family, raised by his grandfather during the period after his own father had departed for America. He appears to have imbibed some of his grandfather's strict, at times even harsh, pedagogical methods. As a professor, Cohen was not known for an indulgent style in the classroom, as he was the first to admit:
The process of demolishing youthful illusions would have hurt sensitive students keenly even if I had been more circumspect than I knew how to be in salving tender feelings. Actually, I found the method of treatment by shock the most effective way of leading students to appreciate the nature and dimensions of ignorance.... The cynic acid that I used for the purpose of dissolving hazy confusions must have left scars on a good many sensitive youngsters. (34)
Interestingly, however, when questions of student infractions, mainly in terms of politics, free speech, and decorum, came before him as a member of the City College faculty committee, Cohen apparently disappointed his more conservative colleagues by advocating a good deal of latitude:
I did not berate the bad manners of our younger generation in accordance with the ancient custom of older generations.... I remembered very vividly my own bad manners as a student. And what was more important, I could not feel that the defects of our boys in point of manners were as important as their extraordinary attachment to the values of the spirit.... The obvious crudeness of youth, whose fine idealism had not been tempered by hard and cold realities, struck some of my colleagues as the chief evil which the colleges of the country needed to correct. I could not share this view. More important than the effort to improve student manners seemed to me the effort to keep the youth of the land from losing faith in the spiritual ideals acquired through generations at a fearful cost. Chief among those ideals was the maintenance of a free and fertile field for the competition of ideas in the search for truth. (35)
On this point, apparently, Cohen, the outsider and seeker of change, emerged as a mediating figure. "As a son of immigrant parents," he wrote, "I shared with my students their background, their interests, and their limitations." (36) The case here recalls Mannheim's observation that, "[in] the transition from one generation to another ... it is not the oldest who meet the youngest at once; the first contacts are [fortunately] made by other 'intermediary' generations, less removed from each other." (37)
Indeed, Cohen indicates that in filling his intermediary role, he was not merely attempting to influence his students, but was also stimulated by their youthful enthusiasms and intellectual volatility: "In later years," he wrote, "when I faced more placid Western students [from points west of New York City] who were less interested in bringing to light their own first principles, I came to realize more clearly how much student attitudes at the City College had contributed to the form of my teaching and of my thought." (38)
Cohen's memoir, A Dreamer's Journey, contains several passages in which the author, then nearing the age of seventy, reflected on the question of the generation gap. In a sense, the writing and publishing of the memoir, which was dedicated to his granddaughter and was significantly aided and supported by his son Felix, represents Cohen's statement on the subject of change and transmission. Following the death of his parents, Cohen felt "a burning desire to tell the story of the generation which cut its roots in the old home, crossed the ocean into a strange land, and brought up its children to make their contribution to a free world." (39) Here, in a nutshell, was his theory of change within the immigrant household, as a microcosm of historical and ideological progress.
Cohen's oedipal break with his father took place when the young Morris, aged twelve, stopped believing in his father's God. He continued to say his prayers, at his father's insistence, but only until he left home at age nineteen. "Though my father respected my independence it came as a heavy blow that I should desert the only intellectual life we had ever shared." (40) He believed that his experience was representative of the break in generational continuity in families like his, and he saw this as the catalyst that motivated young people to create an alternative culture of their own:
There was scarcely a Jewish home on the East Side that was free from this friction between parents and children.... However we resolved this dilemma, and whatever concessions we made to the old ritual, the loss of the religious faiths which had sustained our parents through so many generations ... left a void in our lives.... All our organizations and circles were attempts to fill this void. (41)
Yet, thirteen years before writing that passage, Cohen had observed in his diary that immigrants like his parents, by maintaining their own forms of sociocommunal integrity, were able to "adjust themselves to the new land, to keep [their] self-respect and to make a home for the new generation [where] the traditional learning was a light--not like the modern electric but like the ancient candle ... which enabled people to interpret the new life." (42) Here he seemed to suggest that his own path in life was directly connected to his parents' experience. Cohen apparently came to view the issues of youth, change, and freedom of thought as essentially rooted in the immigrants' travail; and, perhaps, he thought that conflict and intimacy are equally bound up with--and equally essential to--the life of the mind.
Ephraim Lisitzky's account of his first years in America, 'Eleh toledot 'adam, written in an ornate and stylized Hebrew (rather baroque by today's standards but fully in keeping with literate Hebrew in his own day), is at turns self-lacerating and melodramatic, self-justifying and occasionally lyrical. It traces Lisitzky's difficult life from his boyhood in the district of Slutsk in the Russian Pale of Settlement, where he was orphaned of his mother at a young age; describes his early promise as a young Talmudic scholar; and recounts his searing personal travails as his father remarried, fathered several new children, and then sailed off to America for what was to become a seven-year separation. Ultimately, the now-adolescent Ephraim crossed the Atlantic, too, in the company of his stepmother and half-siblings. (43)
His father, a struggling peddler in Boston, could barely support himself, let alone a family. The longed-for reunion took place too late for the emotional scars of the long years of separation to heal, but the young Ephraim's filial obligations left him morally obligated to try to earn his own keep so as not to add to his father's and stepmother's already considerable burdens. His tentative attempts at peddling ended swiftly and unsuccessfully and he reluctantly consented to travel to New York to study for certification as a shochet. Finding work took him still further away from both Boston and New York, as he wandered alone to outlying small towns where handfuls of Jewish families relied on the services of itinerant kosher slaughterers. He supplemented his income by providing Hebrew instruction for the local families' children. (44)
Lisitzky's symbolic orphanhood began at this stage to assume new dimensions as he experienced not only the psychic toll of loneliness but also the spiritual loss due to a crisis of faith. He was left in the untenable position of maintaining the pretence of a religiously observant lifestyle in order to sustain his only source of livelihood. Moving from place to place, he conceived the idea of attending college to be able to practice a secular profession as a pharmacist, but his meager savings were stolen one night by a fellow itinerant Jewish traveler. Lisitzky penetrated far into the American hinterland and pushed north into rural Canada. He eventually found himself on the brink of resolving his loneliness through a romantic union with a non-Jewish woman--one of a series of unfulfilled relationships that he forfeited at the last moment. Eventually he found work in a pharmacy, only to attempt suicide with toxic drugs. He later settled down successfully in New Orleans and became one of the foremost American Hebrew poets and educators of his generation. (45)
"Eleh toledot "adam concludes with Lisitzky's personal credo, in which he reflects on his decision to accomplish an act of halutziut (Zionist pioneering) on American soil--the word deliberately chosen to echo the heroic imagery of prestate Palestine. Lisitzky's mission was to foster a modern Jewish and Hebrew cultural idiom. (46) In adopting for himself the role of a halutz, Lisitzky parlayed the negative image of his aloofness from life--his orphanhood--into a more heroic version, in which one lone man moves resolutely in the vanguard of the rest of the camp. For this purpose he enlisted his liminal position as a young adult, dislodged from his native religious culture and set adrift in an unsettled intergenerational situation. Marginal as well to the world of his American peers, he focused on his younger charges, the freeborn children of Jewish immigrants in America, whom he proclaimed to be a "better" generation:
I have come to know, over the years, the character of the Jewish children born in America: they possess very fine human qualities. They are free of those constraints that cramped the life of the ghetto that existed on the other shore. (47)
Lisitzky's self-appointed mission as a halutz and a harbinger of a modern Jewish culture to the Jewish youth of America places him in a conscious role as a "forerunner" or "intermediary." But it was his self-consciousness as an orphaned young man--motherless, estranged from his father, bereft of his childhood faith, stranded in a Hebraic no-man's land--that added an underlying Weltschmerz to the intergenerational role he played.
Simon Kuznets, undoubtedly one of our prodigies, was born in tsarist Russia in 1901, the son of a Jewish furrier. In the familiar pattern, his father and older brother emigrated to America years before the rest of the family. Equipped with a Russian gymnasium education, Simon entered the economics department of the University of Kharkov (Ukraine), but when the October Revolution and the ensuing civil war severely disrupted academic life, Kuznets went to work collecting labor statistics for the new Ukrainian state administration. At that point, it was decided to reunite the family. Simon and his younger brother arrived in the United States in 1922. Their mother did not make it: she died en route, in Poland. (48)
In New York Kuznets enrolled at Columbia University where he completed his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in rapid succession in just four years. His research dealt with the discovery of long-term economic patterns, essentially extended cycles of some eighteen to twenty-five years' duration, which became known as "Kuznets cycles." (49)
Kuznets worked on the staff of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and was associated with the Social Science Research Council. He held several academic appointments in economics and statistics (University of Pennsylvania, 1930-1954; The Johns Hopkins University, 1954-1960; Harvard University, 1960-1971). His major innovative work in the early 1930s consisted in creating the statistical apparatus for measuring national income--he practically "invented" Gross National Income accounting--and helped to create the National Income Section at the U. S. Department of Commerce. During World War II, he served with the War Production Board as associate director of the Bureau of Planning and Statistics, where he played a key role in assessing American economic resources and production, in effect helping to insure America's economic infrastructure, output capacity, and military procurement program for the war effort. (50)
As two of his former students described this work, Kuznets and his colleague and one-time student, Robert Nathan, "reorganized the method of material procurement [by the government] ... [and] in four short years the percentage of Gross National Product going to the purchase of material rose from a mere 4% to a mighty 48%." This feat, they noted, might almost be compared to what the biblical Joseph did in Egypt. And since Joseph was (as they put it) a "political scientist" rather than an economist, Kuznets's influence on government policy and world economic history were "for fortuitous reasons" quite possibly "the greatest of any single economist." (51)
Kuznets's work in economic statistics and economic history, which included a significant foray into questions of economic modernization and development in the postcolonial world, was widely recognized, and this recognition was capped by the award of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1971.
In 1929 Simon Kuznets married Edith Handler, a Jewish woman of Russian background from Canada whom he met while working at the NBER. They lived in what has been described as a "uniformly gentile neighborhood of the Bronx," raising their two children "in a strictly secular, American manner." Following World War II, however, they moved to a largely Jewish neighborhood in a suburb of Philadelphia. (52) Kuznets's hopes to obtain a senior academic appointment at The Johns Hopkins University were apparently thwarted for a while by the university president's anti-Jewish bias, but when a new president assumed office, Kuznets took up a professorship at Hopkins before moving on again, several years later, to Harvard. (53)
It was in these postwar and later decades that Kuznets published a number of key essays on Jewish economic and social history: "Economic Structure and Life of the Jews," which appeared in Louis Finkelstein's widely read anthology, The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (1949); "Economic Structure of U. S. Jewry: Recent Trends," a lecture that he had delivered at the President of Israel's Study Circle on Diaspora Jewry (1972); and "Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States: Background and Structure" (1975). (54) These studies focused on the special functions of a minority group within larger economic structures, but equally stressed the power of large economic and demographic trends in history, moving away from traditional ways of looking at Jewish life through the prism of intellectual culture, religious values and victimhood.
Coming to write on Jewish topics rather late in life as he did, Kuznets betrayed in these essays little hint of the former youngster from Pinsk who was once drawn to radical Bundist ideas. His long-term avoidance of Jewish scholarship in the pursuit of a career in economic theory and statistics contrasts with the pattern followed by such colleagues as, for example, Arcadius Kahan, the Russian Jewish economic historian at the University of Chicago. Kuznets was, however, clearly bound to innovate and pioneer brilliantly in his chosen field, and there was never really any conflict or question about it. Like Morris Raphael Cohen in his way, Kuznets followed the trajectory of talented immigrant youth who propelled themselves out of the Jewish sphere to discover America.
Yet, his immigrant experience clearly left a lasting mark on Kuznets, who bore the impress of his youthful journey to a new world and a new life. In accepting the Nobel Prize in 1971, Kuznets opened his autobiographical remarks with the following statement: "I was born in Russia in 1901, of Jewish parents, and came to the United States in 1922." (55)
In his Nobel lecture he outlined the major factors in modern economic development and their wider social implications. He spoke knowledgeably about migration as a historical factor of major importance, but one that bore "hidden costs." Several years later, reflecting on the Russian Jewish immigrant stream to America, he wrote that the human qualities and human condition of the immigrants were important economic assets, though these were also the least susceptible to quantitative analysis and the most likely to be overlooked. (56) When he spoke of the imponderables of migration, it was clearly with the benefit of his having thought through his own journey and that of the masses of Russian Jews who emigrated before him:
[M]igration, from the countryside to the cities (within a country, and often international) represented substantial costs in the pulling up of roots and the adjustment to the anonymity and higher costs of urban living. The learning of new skills and the declining value of previously acquired skills was clearly a costly process--to both the individuals and to society. But if such costs were omitted from measurement ..., so were some returns. Urban life ... provided amenities and spiritual goods that were not available in the "dull and brutish" life of the countryside; and the new skills, once learned, were often a more adequate basis for a richer life than the old. (57)
Kuznets's move as a twenty-one year old from the Ukraine to the United States at the time when America was instituting its new immigration quota laws places him very near the close of the mass-migration era. He seems almost to defy categorization as part of any generation--no longer an adolescent, just barely an adult--though all the effects of the historical drama of his day, from the First World War and the Russian Revolution to the Second World War, were etched onto the story of his younger years. He was perhaps a case of a "forerunner" in Mannheim's sense, a harbinger of postideological trends that we have come to associate with the postmodern temper of our own generation, which has set in more strongly in the years since Kuznets' passing.
Hidden Costs of Migration
The case for looking at immigrant families and their offspring from the point of view of the young--and among them, from the perspective of the exceptional few--rests essentially on what new insights we can infer in this manner. Our conventional wisdom about Jewish immigrant lives in America prioritizes acculturation, communal institutionalization, and the strengths (or sometimes pitfalls) of domesticity provided by the nuclear family. By looking at marginal figures among immigrant young people, we are likely to tap into an unstable, fragmentary, and liminal existence that, by its nature, passes easily from view. Those whom I have dubbed "orphans" and "prodigies" retrieve some of these dimensions of Jewish immigrant history and make them plainly visible.
If we may extrapolate from the four cases outlined here, we might say that immigrant youth, who have to struggle to fit several parts of their lives into one whole and don't always succeed, frequently bear the "hidden costs" of change, to adopt Kuznets's phrase. That would certainly appear to have been true of Ephraim Lisitzky, Rose Cohen, and Morris Raphael Cohen, along with many others like them. At the same time, the path of individual achievement, as seen in the life histories of individuals who forge unusually successful careers, may be construed by them as a path leading away from home, which is also, in its way, a "hidden cost."
In this context, the aforementioned comparison of Simon Kuznets to the biblical Joseph is (unwittingly) apt, for Joseph was not only the archetypical Wunderkind, but also an archetype of the foreigner, simultaneously self-estranged from his "own kind" and alien to those in his new social surroundings.
Looking at singular figures is an avenue of historical reflection that evades the dominant strain of "memory" and especially "collective memory." Collective memory, in turn, serves the "quest for certainty." (58) Orphans and prodigies are exempt from providing us with certainties. They are not proselytizers for a cause. None of the figures examined here became pillars of American Jewry (remaining, therefore, far more peripheral in comparison with those on the French Jewish periphery who, in Michael Graetz's formulation, ended up defining the core of their community). (59) In this way they point beyond the constructed discourse of immigrant integration to a more highly differentiated understanding of the essence of strangeness.
* The author would like to thank Eric L. Goldstein and Riv-Ellen Prell for their helpful suggestions in revising this text for publication.
(1.) One of the most influential theoretical statements on this subject is Hayden White, who writes: "We are indentured to a choice among contending interpretive strategies in any effort to reflect on history-in-general." See White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), xii.
(2.) Glen Elder Jr., Children of the Great Depression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 5, 7-8; William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920); Lisa J. Crockett and Rainer K. Silbereisen, "Social Change and Adolescent Development: Issues and Challenges," in Negotiating Adolescence in Times of Social Change, ed. Crockett and Silbereisen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), I. See also Constance A. Flanagan, who writes: "Adolescence... cannot be defined apart from its historical context." Flanagan, "Social Change and the 'Social Contract' in Adolescent Development," in Crockett and Silbereisen, Negotiating Adolescence, 196.
(3.) On the youthful character of Jewish migrants to America, see Simon Kuznets, "Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States: Background and Structure," Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 94-100; Avraham Barkai, Branching Out: German-Jewish Immigration to the United States, 1820-1914 (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1994), 17-29.
(4.) Some representative works include Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), chap. 8; Stephan F. Brumberg, Going to America, Going to School (New York: Praeger, 1986); Riv-Ellen Prell, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989); Gerald Sorin, The Nurturing Neighborhood: The Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish Community in Urban America (New York and London: New York University Press, 1990); Judith R. Kramer and Seymour Leventman, Children of the Gilded Ghetto: A Candid Close-up of Three Generations of American Jews (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1961); Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum, Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier, vol. I of The Lakeville Studies (New York and London: Basic Books, 1967); Sidney Goldstein and Calvin Goldscheider, Jewish Americans: Three Generations in a Jewish Community (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968); Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City 1880-1915 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second-Generation New York Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981); and Chaim Waxman, Jewish Baby Boomers: A Communal Perspective (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001).
For some crosscultural comparative remarks, see also Andrei Simic "White Ethnic and Chicano Families: Continuity and Adaptation to the New World," in Changing Images of the Family, ed. Virginia Tufte and Barbara Myerhoff (New York and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 251-69.
(5.) John Modell, Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 21-25 (quoted passages, 24-25). See also Elder, Children of the Great Depression, 7, 16.
(6.) Steven J. Zipperstein, Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009); Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer, eds., My Future is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006).
(7.) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet, Marcus Moseley, and Michael Stanislawski, "Introduction," in Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust, ed. Jeffrey Shandler (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2002), xii-xxxvii (quoted phrases, xiv, xvi).
(8.) Karl Mannheim, "The Problem of Generations," in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge by Karl Mannheim, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 197z), 278-79, 282, 288-90, 296-98, 302-3, 307.
(9.) On the prevalent image of the small fellowship group (Bund) as a nonstructured, informal, youthful Gemeinschaft in the German cultural sphere of the early twentieth century, see George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964), 171-89, 212-17.
(10.) Mannheim, "The Problem of Generations," 288-92, 308.
(11.) On the symbiotic or synthesis motif as a strategic focal point in self-reflective American Jewish discourse, see Jonathan D. Sarna, "The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture," Jewish Social Studies 5 (Fall 1998/Winter 1999): 52-79. See also Sylvia Barack Fishman, Jewish Life and American Culture (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000).
(12.) An overall discussion of the cultural and literary uses of "orphaned" voices may be found in Diana Loercher Pazicky, Cultural Orphans in America (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998). See also Eileen Simpson, Orphans, Real and Imaginary (New York and London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), 158-217.
(13.) Israel Zangwill, The Works of Israel Zangwill (London: Globe Pub. Co., 1925); Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, by arrangement with Harper and Row, 1917); Mary Antin, The Promised Land (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912); Sholem Aleichem [Rabinovich], Adventures of Mottel the Cantro's Son, trans. Tamara Kahana (Shelter Island, NY: Sholem Aleichem Family Publications, 1999).
(14.) Pazicky, Cultural Orphans, xi.
(15.) For recent scholarship that dwells on youthful individualism in the Jewish sphere, see such works as Alan Mintz, "Banished from Their Father's Table": Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Ezra Mendelsohn, Painting a People: Mauricy Gottlieb and Jewish Art (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2002); Marcus Moseley, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
(16.) Alfred Kazin, New York Jew (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1979), 14.
(17.) See Robert and Michael Meeropol, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976).
(18.) Jules Bank, "Case and Group Work Integration for Adolescents," Proceedings of the National Conference of Jewish Social Service (May 1936): 96-7; Bank, "The Child-Centered Institution," Proceedings of the National Conference of Jewish Social Welfare (May 1938): 77-82. See also Hyman Bogen, The Luckiest Orphans: A History of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Reena Sigman, These Are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880-1925 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 1994).
(19.) Ben-Ami Scharfstein wrote: "The fear of absence and death stimulates a creative response in some persons. It should therefore not be surprising that among the philosophers there have been many who were sensitized in childhood to absence and death, for they have been of the sort to whom the reality of death . . . has spelled the death of the commonsensical reality that is all that most people are able to acknowledge." Of his twenty biographical sketches of great European philosophers, thirteen suffered loss or separation from a parent, siblings, or both parents while still in infancy, childhood, or early adolescence. See Scharfstein, The Philosophers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 120.
(20.) Ephraim Eliyahu Lisitzky, 'Eleh toledot 'adam (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1949). Lisitzky, with the help of two translators, also produced a revised English version of his memoir, In the Grip of Cross-currents, trans. Moshe Kohn and Jacob Sloan (New York: Bloch, 1959). All citations in this essay are from the original Hebrew version.
(21.) On Wald, see Marjorie N. Feld, Lillian Wald: A Biography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
(22.) Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side (1918; repr. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), ix-xxi, 69, 81-90, 108-133, 231-61.
(23.) Ibid., 78-79.
(24.) Ibid., 152.
(25.) Ibid., 152-54.
(26.) Ibid., 200-29.
(27.) Ibid., 259.
(28.) Ibid., 312.-13.
(29.) Ibid., 313.
(30.) The question of Rose Cohen's untimely death is discussed by Thomas Dublin in his introduction to the 1995 edition of Out of the Shadow. Dublin notes that the matter is somewhat speculative, as Cohen's family members tried not to discuss her, and that some of the speculation is linked to Anzia Yezierska's short story, Wild Winter Love, published the year that Cohen died (1927), that implied Cohen had killed herself. Yezierska's story, in turn, was partly ascribable to an item in the New York Times, five years previously, about an attempted suicide by one Rose Cohen (New York Times, Sep. 17, 1922). Dublin concludes that "Cohen's untimely death may have been a suicide, though we can't be certain." See Dublin, "Introduction to the 1995 Edition," in Cohen, Out of the Shadow, xv-xvi.
(31.) Joseph R. Demartini, "Change Agents and Generational Relationships: A Reevaluation of Mannheim's Problem of Generation," Social Forces 64 (Sep. 1985): 1-16. Thus, Demartini writes of the political and social changes among young people in America during the 1960s and 1970s: "Similarities in the direction of change across cohorts supports the conclusion that social movement participants, non-participants, and their parents responded in like manner to societal-wide change influences" (12).
(32.) Morris Raphael Cohen, A Dreamer's Journey: The Autobiography of Morris Raphael Cohen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949), 187.
(33.) "In the pride of youth," wrote Cohen, "I used to characterize myself as philosophically a stray dog, unchained to any metaphysical kennel." See Cohen, "What I Believe," The Nation, Aug. 5, 1931, 128; and Cohen, Dreamer's Journey, 128-39.
(34.) Cohen, Dreamer's Journey, 148.
(35.) Ibid., 151.
(36.) Ibid., 145.
(37.) Mannheim, "Generations," 301.
(38.) Cohen, Dreamer's Journey, 145.
(39.) Ibid., 160.
(40.) Ibid., 69-70.
(41.) Ibid., 98-99.
(42.) Ibid., 283.
(43.) Lisitzky, 'Eleh toledot 'adam, 11-59.
(44.) Ibid., 62-77, 96-110, 112-17, 131-45.
(45.) Ibid., 121-30, 137, 180-86, 194-273, 280-84.
(46.) Ibid., 2.84-87.
(47.) Ibid., 285.
(48.) Simon Kuznets, "Simon Kuznets," in Nobel Lectures: Economics, 1969-1980, ed. Assar Lindbeck (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 1992), 85-86, available online at http://nobelprize.org/nobel-prizes/ economics/laureates/1971/kuznets-autobio.html (accessed Mar. 15, 2009); Vibha Kapuria-Foreman and Mark Perlman, "An Economic Historian's Economist: Remembering Simon Kuznets," The Economic Journal 105 (Nov. 1995): 1525-27; E. Glen Weyl, "Simon Kuznets: Economist of the Russian Jewish Diaspora," May 2007, online at http.//www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~weyl/ Working_Draft_Kuznets.pdf (accessed Mar. 15, 2009), 6.
(49.) Kuznets, "Simon Kuznets"; Kapuria-Foreman and Perlman, "Remembering Simon Kuznets," 1526-28.
(50.) Robert W. Fogel, "Simon S. Kuznets, April 30, 1901--July 9, 1985," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 7787, July 2000, online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w7787 (accessed Mar. 15, 2009), 1, 8-9, 11; Kapuria-Foreman and Perlman, "Remembering Simon Kuznets," 1529-35.
(51.) Kapuria-Foreman and Perlman, "Remembering Simon Kuznets," 1524.
(52.) Weyl, "Economist of the Russian Jewish Diaspora," 7.
(53.) Kapuria-Foreman and Perlman, "Remembering Simon Kuznets," 153 on 13.
(54.) Simon Kuznets, "Economic History of the Jews," in The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, ed. Louis Finkelstein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1949), 2:1597-1666; Kuznets, Economic Structure of U.S. Jewry" Recent Trends (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, Institute of Contemporary Jewry, 1972). See also note x above.
(55.) Simon Kuznets, "Modern Economic Growth: Findings and Reflections," Nobel Memorial Lecture, Dec. 11, 1971, available online at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/ 1971/kuznets-lecture.html (accessed on Mar. 15, 2009).
(56.) Kuznets, "Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States," 123-24.
(57.) Kuznets, "Modern Economic Growth."
(58.) I am indebted for the phrase "quest for certainty" to Yael Sternhell, "Communicating War: The Culture of Information in Richmond During the American Civil War," Past and Present 202 (Feb. 2009): 205.
(59.) Michael Graetz, Ha-periferiah haytah la-merkaz (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1983), published in English as The Jews in Nineteenth-Century France: From the French Revolution to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2009|
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