The Novels That Charted Jewish Hardship, Survival and Assimilation in America

A tradition over a century old is still being given new twists, as writers explore what it means to belong in the US

The Novels That Charted Jewish Hardship, Survival and Assimilation in America
A lobby card for the 1922 movie “Hungry Hearts,” based on stories by Anzia Yezierska. (Goldwyn Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Gabriel Lazris spends the waning days of Salvador Allende’s presidency exactly as a young communist should: picking kabocha squash in the Chilean countryside.

The 16-year-old protagonist of Lily Meyer’s debut novel “Short War,” Gabriel is an American Jew, not a Chilean. But as the son of a journalist stationed in Santiago, he’s grown up in the optimistic Allende era, when Chile seemed poised to become a beacon of democratic socialism. In this heady atmosphere, an earnest leftist like Gabriel has real opportunities to turn politics into practice — like joining Trabajo Voluntario, a program that teaches city kids about the hardships of farm labor by sending them into the fields. He’s even convinced his less ideological Chilean girlfriend Caro to come along.

So Gabriel is understandably frustrated when Ofelia, the veteran activist in charge of the program, quizzes him on his origins. She’s displeased to discover that he speaks English; and when he admits that his father is an extremely noncommunist American journalist, she instructs him bluntly not to sign up for any more work brigades. The implication here is that Gabriel’s nationality, and his father’s work in an industry hostile to Chilean socialism, render him fundamentally suspect, regardless of his personal convictions.

Ofelia’s perception of Gabriel could not be more at odds with his sense of self. The grandson of immigrants who saw their relatives killed at Auschwitz, Gabriel feels like a perennial outsider in his home country, someone for whom the benefits of American citizenship are never quite guaranteed. Though Gabriel eschews novels for political touchstones like Karl Marx’s “Capital,” his beliefs reflect some of the dominant currents in Jewish-American fiction — a tradition that has long been concerned with the struggles of immigrants and their descendants to achieve safety and prosperity in their chosen country. While works in this genre differ greatly in perspective, tone and political orientation, many are united in suggesting that Jewish belonging in America is tenuous at best; and many depict protagonists working hard to overcome the shifting barriers to success through education, assimilation, activism and alliances with other marginalized groups. Even today, when Jews are more integrated into American society than ever before, contemporary writers often focus on past periods of greater hardship, contending as emphatically as their predecessors that the privileges of being an American are both precarious and well worth striving for. Though the circumstances of Jewish life in America have changed radically, such shared beliefs have constituted a through line connecting different literary eras.

With “Short War,” Meyer makes an intervention in this tradition. When Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup plunges Chile into a dictatorship, Gabriel’s fate diverges from Caro’s in a way that vindicates Ofelia’s cynicism, forcing him to confront how drastically his American citizenship privileges him above the non-Americans he loves. While focusing on events several decades in the past, the resulting novel represents a new branch of the American Jewish canon — reflecting the community’s ongoing transformation from strangers at the gate to insiders who share fully in responsibility for America’s ruinous interventions abroad.

Literature by Jewish Americans exploded around the turn of the 20th century, as immigrants from Eastern Europe flocked to urban centers like New York City and writers published vivid portraits of their lives in Yiddish and English. One canonical but often overlooked specimen from this outpouring is Anzia Yezierska’s “Bread Givers”; published in 1925, the novel tells the story of Sara Smolinsky, a young woman coming of age (much as the author did) in the overcrowded tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. An impoverished child laborer, Sara lives at the margins of American society. But exposure to professed national ideals of equality, hard work and progress cause her to question the Old World attitude of her father, an unemployed rabbi who expects his daughters to support his studies. As a teenager, Sara decides that the only way to escape her father and become a “real American” is by bootstrapping her way through school and into a professional career. Much of the novel is a litany of the hardships she endures in pursuit of this goal, while her family’s increasing degradation and the comparatively luxurious lives of her teachers and gentile peers underscore the importance of success.

These hardships — and the rewards she stands to gain by surmounting them — become most apparent when Sara wins a scholarship to a private college outside New York City. From the day of her arrival, she’s astonished by the “light-hearted laughing youth” of her non-Jewish (and, although this is not a primary concern for Sara, presumably white) classmates, who know nothing of the “terrible fight for bread and rent.” Although Sara hastens to adapt, her immigrant diction and obvious poverty emphasize her outsider status, and the students she attempts to befriend respond with polite disdain. Eventually, she abandons the effort to fit in and focuses on work, obtaining her degree through a combination of grit and rage. One of the novel’s most arresting and explicitly metaphorical images occurs during a mandatory physical education class, when Sara — accustomed to hard labor and appalled by the idea of exercising for fun — simply smashes a hurdle she can’t jump over. Her peers are disgusted, but the dean waives the gym requirement.

Yezierska suggests that Sara’s ability to dispense with the hurdles set before her by an unfriendly country is what makes her most American. As a sympathetic professor remarks, inducting her into the self-mythologizing culture created by previous generations of European settlers, “All pioneers have to get tough to survive.” Not everyone sees things from the professor’s perspective: Sara leaves college with no friends and only impersonal respect for her academic achievements. But she stuns her family by returning home as a well-groomed teacher, and quickly marries the principal of the school where she works, another educated Jew consciously remaking himself as a “real American.” If the certainty of continued discrimination mars the novel’s happy ending, it also emphasizes how hard Sara has worked for her modest victories.

The decades following the publication of “Bread Givers” were cognitively dissonant ones for American Jews. As Vivian Gornick notes in her essay “Radiant Poison,” the 1930s and 1940s were characterized by “more Jews breaking into white-collar jobs, the arts, and the professions,” just as “a virulent Jew-hatred made itself felt at every level of society, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive.” For the generation that included Jewish literary heavyweights like Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin, college attendance, especially at public institutions like New York’s City College, became commonplace. Meanwhile, pro-Nazi organizations like the German-American Bund enjoyed alarming popularity, and xenophobic immigration clampdowns reminded recent arrivals that they were barely tolerated. As American Jews put the dire economic straits of Yezierska’s generation behind them, new obstacles to feeling at home in America arose — and new novels addressed them.

This bifurcated experience is the implicit background of Philip Roth’s 1959 debut novella, “Goodbye Columbus,” which chronicles the awkward process of mid-century assimilation and the social marginalization that persisted even after American Jews attained material comforts Yezierska could only imagine. Roth’s protagonist, 23-year-old Neil Klugman, takes his (public) college education and (lowly) librarian job for granted; his fondness for his hometown of Newark, “an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection,” is uncomplicated by any fight for bread or rent. Instead, that sense of comfort is threatened when he encounters the suburban-dwelling, Radcliffe-attending, Jewish country club-belonging Brenda Patimkin, who becomes his girlfriend and introduces him to a lifestyle vastly different than his own. While Neil’s family sit out the heat in the alley behind their apartment, he and Brenda eat fresh fruit in wealthy Short Hills, a breezy town literally elevated over the stifling city below. While Neil’s aunt frets about phone bills, Brenda boasts casually about getting her nose “bobbed.” While Neil puffs around the high school track, Brenda and her brother Ron excel at sports like tennis and basketball.

Brenda’s wealth and panache, courtesy of her father’s success as a sink merchant, make Neil simultaneously ashamed of his family and resentful of his condescending Short Hills hosts. He also learns from the Patimkins a lesson that “Bread Givers” only hints at: Besides education and money, upward mobility also requires the adaptation of new values and behaviors, as well as the wholesale abandonment of many aspects of Jewish culture. (Mr. Patimkin is rueful but proud to report that his children understand no Yiddish.) The Patimkins’ drive to assimilate, at any financial or cultural cost, frequently renders them ridiculous. But the unspoken memory of the immigration quotas, the swastika-filled rallies at Madison Square Garden, and the Holocaust itself, all events of the recent past, prevents them from becoming solely objects of scorn. Roth doesn’t need to provide a history primer to communicate that the Patimkins are acting out of self-preservation as well as arriviste ambition.

The family’s quest is all the more poignant for its futility. The more time Neil spends at Brenda’s house, the more cracks he notices in the genteel facade. Remnants of immigrant striving are everywhere, from the storeroom full of humble furniture from their former home in Newark to Mr. Patimkin’s idiosyncratic spelling. (“I am willing to forgive and call Buy Gones, Buy Gones,” he writes plaintively to Brenda after discovering that she and Neil have been having sex.) Even the fact that Neil’s sense of inadequacy derives from the behavior of fellow Jews emphasizes the lack of gentile Americans in Brenda’s supposedly assimilated circle. Though they’ve wildly surpassed the expectations of previous generations, the Patimkins and their peers haven’t achieved acceptance in the white upper class; they’ve just created a convincing facsimile. The pity with which Neil ultimately regards them links Roth to earlier writers like Yezierska, and demonstrates how the experience of exclusion and alienation outlasts triumph over the particular material problem of poverty.

Most American Jews of Roth’s vintage, and certainly those who came after, were born into families decades removed from immigration. “The claim on existential outsiderness,” Gornick remarks of this generation, “that, from its inception, had acted as a foundation for Jewish-American writing became, almost overnight, a thing of the past.” Yet even as arrival in the United States has become a matter of memory, and the social barriers depicted by Roth have melted away, Jewish writers often look back at the difficulties experienced by their forebears and the process of winning the privileges of full inclusion in American society. Published in 2023 and based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Elizabeth Graver’s “Kantika” traces the yearslong migration that ensues when a prosperous Sephardic family is forced out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. In one of the novel’s climactic episodes, the protagonist, Rebecca, finds herself trapped in Spain, where she must conceal her Jewishness to get work. To evade the American quota system and secure her children’s safety, Rebecca’s family proposes that she marry a widowed acquaintance already settled in the Bronx.

Rebecca enters this arrangement reluctantly and out of desperation, and Graver presents the early days of the marriage (it does eventually become a happy one) as transactional and not particularly pleasant. The daughter of a once-prosperous merchant, Rebecca must accustom herself to life with a candy store owner and his overbearing mother; she balks at the burden of caring for his disabled daughter and her initial interactions with her new husband are marked by tension and misunderstandings. These difficulties, and the grim pragmatism with which Rebecca surmounts them, show how much an American passport means to her, much as Sara Smolinsky’s college travails emphasize the paramount importance of education in her own quest for belonging.

Unlike Roth, Graver writes with a 21st-century perspective on the Jewish-American trajectory, and her novel is punctuated with flash-forwards hinting that all will end well. Yet just as “Goodbye Columbus” is suffused with anxiety about the fate of busily assimilating Jews, the present action of “Kantika” is characterized by worry and danger. Like other contemporary novels such as Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s “Before All the World” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated,” Kantika focuses on past periods of hardship not just to safeguard cultural memory but to gesture at present precarity. In a moment when a resurgent alt-right has made American antisemitism newly visible, the high stakes of Rebecca’s journey emphasize that Jewish safety in America is hardly guaranteed — and this attitude aligns Graver with her literary antecedents, even though she writes under very different circumstances.

As the immediate obstacles to accessing the benefits of citizenship have changed, so has Jewish-American literature. Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel “The Chosen” portrays a young man defying his ultra-Orthodox father to pursue a career in secular academia — suggesting, much like “Bread Givers,” that insular religious communities prevent their members from succeeding in American society. Johanna Kaplan’s 1975 novella “Other People’s Lives” follows Louise, a young Holocaust survivor newly arrived in New York City, who is adopted by a circle of bohemian bon vivants centered around her landlady, a German emigre who may or may not have been part of the Hitler Youth. Everyone in this milieu is shaped by WWII, and everyone — including Louise, who spent most of the war in Cuba — has emerged relatively unscathed. But though Louise rarely reflects on her Jewishness, and certainly never brings it up with her new friends, her specific experience alienates her and prevents her from forging an adult life within their ranks.

Protagonists in this genre have also taken divergent paths toward achieving their version of the “American Dream,” reflecting the different political priorities of their creators. Yezierska’s Sara is unequivocally enthusiastic about assimilating and takes joy in her final mission, as a teacher, of instructing the Lower East Side’s next generation to say “bird” instead of “boid.” By contrast, James McBride’s 2023 novel “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” depicts a defiantly anti-assimilationist Jewish community navigating the nativist 1930s in a small Pennsylvania town: Rather than trying to ingratiate themselves with the hostile local patriarchs, they band together with Black neighbors to protect their most vulnerable members. McBride is certainly more clear-eyed than Yezierska about the racist hypocrisies embedded in American culture, but his heroic multiracial alliance ultimately valorizes the melting pot ideal and the opportunities the United States offers even its most marginalized citizens. What these novels (and many others) share is a belief that the privileges that come with being American are won with great difficulty — and must always be carefully safeguarded.

With “Short War,” Meyer situates herself within this canon — if only to pick a fight. Early in the novel, Gabriel relates that after coming to Chicago and making a fortune by opening tanneries, his grandfather scrambled to get his family out of pre-Holocaust Europe, only to buy them tickets on the infamous St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees that was turned away by the American government out of nativist sentiment. That personal history endows Gabriel with a deep suspicion of his home country, manifested — in typically teenage fashion — as hatred for his father’s work. Unlike many of his literary predecessors, Gabriel doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to force America to accept him; when Caro announces, midway through their stint at Trabajo Voluntario, that she’s pregnant, he imagines a shared future as Chileans. But he doesn’t dispute the premise that his standing as an American Jew is inherently tenuous.

Gabriel sees these beliefs shattered after the 1973 coup. Within days of Pinochet’s rise to power, the American government spirits the Lazris family out of the country. But not even Gabriel’s father can successfully pull strings for Caro, who quickly disappears into police custody. Revealing the sad affair to Nina, his second daughter by a later marriage, Gabriel marvels at the sudden and drastic distinction his nationality imposed between them. While he returns to the Washington suburbs and enrolls in a prestigious prep school, Caro gives birth (as Gabriel discovers only decades later) in a clandestine prison notorious for the sexual violence inflicted on inmates.

Previous generations of Jewish-American writers have often held that whatever hurdles and humiliations life in the United States entailed, becoming American is at least a surefire way of protecting one’s family. By becoming a teacher, Sara Smolinsky is finally able to lift her father out of poverty; the Patimkins launch their children into a higher social class; Graver’s Rebecca removes her sons from the encroaching tides of Nazism. Gabriel grasps at this idea during Trabajo Voluntario, when he realizes that with a coup likely and a baby on the way, Caro is in great danger. “He was, after all, an American,” he thinks to himself, vowing to take responsibility. “He could offer her all the protection in the world.”

In fact, though American citizenship spares him the experience of life under Pinochet, he is powerless to extend that safety to Caro. Ironically, Gabriel finds himself in much the same position as his grandfather, but his failure has nothing to do with antisemitic public policy. Rather, when push comes to shove, the only thing that really matters is that he’s an American, and Caro isn’t. The ruthlessness with which the government extracts him from Chile and abandons Caro refutes his previous beliefs about the precarity of his place as a Jew in the United States, and challenges the literary tradition that shaped those beliefs.

As an adult, Gabriel spends years looking for Caro; when he eventually discovers that she has died by suicide, he focuses the search on his lost daughter. Nina, who narrates the second portion of “Short War,” pitches in as well, but they’re not able to make much progress, largely because any relevant data that surfaces on the internet is quickly scrubbed. From these mysterious circumstances, Nina can surmise that her half-sister doesn’t want to be found, and guesses that she blames Gabriel for escaping the dictatorship while she suffered its consequences. Nevertheless, Nina ends her section of the novel by posting a dramatic missing person ad on Facebook with the caption, “Tell my sister I love her.” Neither she nor Gabriel ever completely lose hope that, given a chance to redeem themselves, they can bring her into the fold.

It’s through this relentless optimism that Gabriel and Nina — so right-mindedly progressive and earnestly cognizant of their complicity in their country’s misadventures abroad — prove themselves definitively American, especially in comparison to Caro’s gimlet-eyed daughter Ada, who drives home the novel’s argument as its final narrator. Not only has she been hindering the search with the help of a (rather too convenient) hacker boyfriend, Ada reveals that she’s been surveilling her biological family for years via their email and credit card transactions. The intimate yet extremely creepy nature of this one-sided relationship mirrors Ada’s emotional outlook. If she doesn’t blame Gabriel or desire him to make amends — “I have often been murky,” she says, “on the questions of what the Lazrises owe me and I them” — she certainly can’t conceive of him as anything like a father figure. To Ada, Gabriel is first and foremost a beneficiary of a government that has blighted her life. No matter how much he rejects his country’s politics, his nationality both protects him and distances him from his daughter. Far from working hard to secure the material privileges of citizenship as Sara Smolinsky does, or chasing elusive social benefits like Neil Klugman, Gabriel finds his status as an American impossible to disown.

Meyer doesn’t bother answering the question of whether Jews can truly belong in America. By ending the novel on the insurmountable divide between the American and Chilean members of the Lazris family, she reframes the debate, asking instead whether belonging in America is worth the cost of complicity in its disastrous foreign policy. Gabriel is aware of those costs, at least in the abstract, from adolescence. But it takes a lifetime for him to embrace Ofelia’s attitude — to understand his citizenship not as an asset, however ambivalent, but as an inescapable and poisoned inheritance.

Ada’s final, dispassionate dismissal of her family brought to mind a seemingly inconsequential moment from “Goodbye, Columbus,” in which Mr. Patimkin watches proudly while Ron, new to the sink business, barks orders at their Black employees. Neil, observing, can’t help noticing the comic elements of the scene, like Ron’s obvious insecurity in front of the men he’s supposed to be managing and Mr. Patimkin’s collection of racy calendars, all distributed by other Jewish businesses, whose illustrated models are “so fantastically thighed and uddered, that one could not think of them as pornographic.” To Neil, it’s evident that Ron is only playing at being a boss, just as Mr. Patimkin is pretending to a machismo he doesn’t actually possess. He can’t totally comprehend the proposition that these upstart Jews could really be business owners, capitalists, exploiters of workers — much less agents of their government’s Cold War policies.

Like Roth, Meyer is grounded in a young but rich literary history that began as the first waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in America, and chronicled their descendants’ rapid transformation into a successful yet embattled minority. A century ago, books like “Bread Givers” were just beginning to articulate the themes of belonging and assimilation, education and alienation, that would preoccupy writers for decades. That such ideas persist in “Short War” — through Gabriel’s family history, his alienation from the United States and flirtation with socialism, and his doomed affair with Caro — is a testament to how relevant and stubbornly unresolvable they remain today.

But instead of comparing the Jewish experience to that of other Americans, Meyer focuses her attention outward, showing how the United States’ Cold War interventionism results in inevitable divides between Chileans like Caro and Ada and Americans (even marginalized ones) like Gabriel. That small shift — the imagining of Jewish characters not as outsiders in the United States, but as privileged Americans abroad — allows Meyer to take the proposition Roth dismisses very seriously, and marks a significant departure from previous eras in Jewish-American literature. Perhaps her questions are the ones that will guide the tradition through its next century.

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