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  • Between the Orient and the Ghetto:A Modern Immigrant Woman in Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements
  • Ljiljana Coklin (bio)

Anzia Yezierska's first novel, Salome of the Tenements (1923), is one of the earliest attempts to situate the representation of a female Jewish immigrant within the larger context of American modernity. As such, the text is riddled by contradictions as the author strives to combine a female immigrant rags-to-riches story with a narrative of female empowerment. Yezierska's introductory portrayal of urban immigrant femininity caters to the established expectations of an American audience: it offers familiar sketches of the hardships of ghetto living and reinforces immigrant desire for social visibility and economic stability. Yet, Yezierska's ghetto girl is also a driven and aggressive achiever and compulsive consumer, aware of her sexuality and increasingly skeptical of the female American Dream: of matrimony as a vehicle for women's upward social mobility. I argue here that Yezierska's characterization of Sonya Vrunsky in Salome of the Tenements redefines the ghetto girl as bold, ambitious, and goal oriented and as such participates in the larger efforts of American feminists to redefine the New American Woman as independent, active, strong willed, and sexually assertive. Yezierska establishes a link between an empowered immigrant woman and a liberated New American Woman through her employment of rich yet contradictory Oriental imagery, and in particular through her use of the Salome myth.

Yezierska's use of the images of Salome and the Orient serves several purposes in Salome of the Tenements. The numerous references to the biblical story of Salome establish the Semitic background of Yezierska's main character and the polarized world of modern America, in this case between a Jewish immigrant woman and an Anglo-Saxon American male. The identification of Yezierska's Sonya Vrunsky with Salome, the pivotal figure of European modernist art and the fin-de-siècle Decadent movement, aligns Yezierska's immigrant narrative with modernist literary and artistic output as well as empowers the immigrant heroine, hungry for cultural sophistication, social advancement, economic power, and sexual freedom. Furthermore, Yezierska's choice of images [End Page 136] of Oriental otherness and of the heroine's free "dance" of social mobility participates actively in the American social and cultural scene of the time. It reflects the visual fascination of early Hollywood with the Orient, responds to the shocking emergence of modern dance in America, and supports efforts of American feminists to resort to the Oriental topology as a new geography of women's newly found liberties: economic, political, artistic, and sexual.

Yezierska's invocation of the Orient in her representation of a Jewish immigrant woman is a strategy to empower her heroine as well as to situate her within the larger context of modernity, American pop culture, and emerging feminism. Yet, the seductiveness of the Oriental imagery complicates Yezierska's efforts, as the same imagery is used, as Edward Said has argued, to disempower, distanciate, and dismiss the other on the grounds of its excessive and destabilizing, albeit charming and exoticized, difference. It does not surprise, then, that burdened with complex imagery and contradictory meanings, the immigrant heroine in Yezierska's text becomes a contested site in which biology and artifice, radicalism and conservatism, submissiveness and aggression, images of a noble savage woman and a stylized, decadent seductress, intersect. The Jewish immigrant woman in Salome of the Tenements emerges simultaneously as a pristine, self-sacrificial, exoticized pre-modern ingénue and a scheming, dishonest, and corrupt woman, whose sexuality threatens to destabilize the power structure of gender relations in turn-of-the-century America. The unsettling inconsistency in Yezierska's character is a powerful comment on the contradictory existence of the Jewish immigrant woman in modern America, on the jarring contrasts between immigrant ghettos and urban America, and on larger social imperatives to identify, contain, and situate the redefined roles of a modern American woman.

The Case of Anzia Yezierska

As an immigrant writer with a proto-feminist orientation, Anzia Yezierska and her work are currently experiencing a revival of interest among feminist scholars and audiences. Her unconventional lifestyle—she abandoned her husband and daughter, insisted on a "room...


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