- Eastern European Jewish American Narratives, 1890–1930 by Dana Mihăilescu
LANHAM, MD: LEXINGTON BOOKS, 2018.
How did people who faced various forms of suffering—from the pogroms in Eastern Europe to the legal and political discrimination in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond—maintain their humanity through disinterested acts of care and ethical responsibility? This question is at the heart of Dana Mihăilescu’s Eastern European Jewish American Narratives, 1890–1930, published in the Lexington Books series Studies in Modern Jewish History, Historiography, and Memory. This is an erudite and compelling study of both well-known and lesser-known Eastern European Jewish authors in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. For students of Jewish American history and culture, this is a particularly rich period; Mihăilescu adds a lucid and necessary perspective to studies of modern Jewish subjectivity in the United States by drawing on the work not only of well-known writers such as Mary Antin, Abraham Cahan, and Anzia Yezierska, but also others who may still be obscure to many readers. In fact, one of the major contributions of this study is its comparative framework and the recovery of significant literary and cultural work by immigrant writers from Romania, a gap in contemporary scholarship Mihăilescu fills skillfully by drawing on both US and Romanian archives. Her book, therefore, does the important work of recovering several Jewish American writers originally from Romania, such as M. E. Ravage, Konrad Bercovici, and Maurice Samuel, heretofore little known to many readers of both Jewish American and American multiethnic literature. [End Page 205]
One of the study’s merits is its focus on what the author calls “ethical agency” in examining what she terms “the dilemmas associated with Eastern European Jewish American identity” as “a critical element in fashioning modern subjectivity” (xi). Structuring her argument around what she calls “the contingency of identity,” Mihăilescu adds to ongoing conversations about Jewish “politics of ambivalence” (Eric Homberger) and “performing Americanness” (Catherine Rottenberg) by reading this body of work through what she calls an “ethics out of contingency.” Drawing on philosophers such as Axel Honneth, Emmanuel Levinas, Judith Butler, and Adriana Cavarero, the author offers an ethical approach where “power fields, strategy, and performativity represent forms of a struggle for recognition in the name of ethical dilemmas and not merely of self-preserving interests” (xiii). Mihăilescu grounds her work in three distinct theoretical sets of approaches: feminist theory and gender studies, ethnic studies, and multilingual, multi- and transcultural approaches. In this framework of analysis, the categories contingency (as reliance on the unknowable) and affect (as reliance on human bonds and emotions) are at the center of her investigation of Eastern European Jewish writers in the United States whose ethical agency reveals not only a critique of the social milieus coeval to these writers, but also a sense of responsibility for the other’s vulnerability. As Mihăilescu argues throughout, “the struggle for recognition in the name of moral injuries and the individual responsibility for the other are important pillars in narratives by early twentieth century Eastern European Jewish American writers” (15).
Organized around an introduction, two parts comprising five chapters, and a conclusion, Eastern European Jewish American Narratives, 1890–1930 examines shifting patterns of identity, between Eastern European, Jewish, and Jewish American, among both Jews native to the Pale of Settlement and Jews from neighboring Romania—a lesser-known yet rich, multilingual archive the author navigates with wit and authority. Part 2 in particular is especially poignant in offering what the author calls an “alternative ethical reading” of the writers’ struggles with both power and recognition. Mihăilescu notes that, once in the United States, Eastern European Jews discover “the contingent in themselves,” which she explains as their own “opacity and vulnerable humanity represented by a vacillating ethical agency” (xvii). Tracing what she calls “a new sense of ethical agency” characterizing Jewish identity in the United States in narratives by Mary Antin, M. E. Ravage, Maurice Samuel, Konrad Bercovici, and Anzia Yezierska, Mihăilescu shows comparatively...