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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1131-1154

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Rewriting the Ghetto:

Cultural Production in the Labor Narratives of Rose Schneiderman and Theresa Malkiel

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Jewish ghetto of New York City's Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places in the nation. With more than 1.5 million eastern European Jews immigrating to the United States between 1881 and 1910, and with many settling at least for a time in New York, the ghetto holds a vital place in the history and imagination of Jewish America.1 Jacob Riis, who believed the ghetto's teeming streets and dark workplaces were in sore need of reform, describes the place according to its Jewishness. Writing in 1890, he notes that the ghetto's character arises from a constitutive relationship between people and place. "No need of asking where we are," he claims. "The jargon of the street, the signs of the sidewalk, the manner and dress of the people, their unmistakable physiognomy, betray their race at every step."2 If the streets characterize the people, the residents—racially defined—create the place: "There is no mistaking it: we are in Jewtown" (85). Riis thus suggests what John Dewey would later argue: the individual is not a mere passive entity reacting to an environment; rather his impulses make him an active agent in the discovery, adjustment, and transformation of that environment.3 How the individual becomes this agent, particularly through the immigrant narrative, is my concern in this essay.

Riis is not alone when he notes that the ghetto and its residents collaborate to form their respective identities. Many stories describing Jewish settlement in New York take a nondescript city space and transform it into a newly recognizable place, and the Jewish ghetto emerges, inflected by the experiences of its denizen narrators.4 For example, as Abraham Cahan's Yekl (1896) follows its eponymous hero through his struggle between old world duties and new world desires, the Lower East Side comes into focus especially through its workplaces, from the sweatshop to the dancing school to the neighborhood grocery store—each place creating various worker-identities, each representing varying modes of Americanization. We find this connection of work, identity, [End Page 1131] and place also in Rose Cohen's 1918 autobiography Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Childhood on the Lower East Side. The story traces Cohen's development as a daughter of the ghetto, who, to keep her family solvent, shuttles back and forth from job to job, and from sweatshop to hospital when work takes its toll on her health. The sweatshop not only threatens her physically; it erases her as a character in her own narrative when the story focuses finally on her brother, the one who escapes the ghetto through a Columbia education. Such an escape becomes a reality for Anzia Yezierska's Sara Smolinsky (Bread Givers, 1925), who receives a college education outside New York City. The ghetto, however, remains a physical and conceptual force when she returns to labor not as a sweatshop girl, but as a licensed teacher. Once home, her identity remains marked by patriarchal pressures when her father and other father figures continue to dominate her domestic and work space. The ghetto as a home defined by labor and ethnicity figures even in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927). Jack Robin (the former Jakie Rabinowitz) escapes the ghetto's religious and paternalistic pressures for a time but returns to New York after his success as a vaudeville performer earns him a spot on Broadway. Back home for work, he discovers that he cannot completely escape his father's suffocating orthodoxy; he returns to a Jewish history he can only temporarily deny.

In each story, work emerges as one factor defining the ghetto home and creating a vision of Jewish American identity. The same is true in the writing of Rose Schneiderman and Theresa Serber Malkiel, two Jewish immigrants deeply involved in labor movements of the early twentieth century...


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