The Immigrant Jewish Intellectual

Born in Yarmolinetz, Podolia (modern-day Ukraine), Abraham (Ab) Goldberg (1883–1942) was a prolific writer, journalist, and public figure in labor Zionist circles in New York. His journalistic writings were collected in four volumes of essays (three in Yiddish and one posthumously published collection in English).

Taken from Grenetsn (Borders), Goldberg’s 1924 collection of journalistic writings, “The Immigrant Jewish Intellectual” explores the alienation felt by those cut off not only from their homeland but also from their family, friends, and compatriots, all of whom are also dealing with the struggles of isolation in overlapping ways. Goldberg compares the plight of the immigrant Jewish intellectual in America with that of Robinson Crusoe, a comparison that does not go well for the intellectual. —Daniel Kennedy

 

Do you remember the story of Robinson Crusoe? In your youth you no doubt shed a warm tear for that unfortunate individual who found himself stranded on a desert island. Poor Robinson Crusoe! Torn away from his friends and acquaintances, all alone on an island with no one to talk to. It would be enough to leave one climbing up the walls—but there were no walls on the island either.

More wretched even than Robinson Crusoe’s fate however is the fate of the immigrant Jewish intellectual in America. Crusoe at least had a parrot to break the empty monotony of his isolation, one who would affectionately squawk the name “Crusoe!” This bird’s screeching awakened many fond memories and hopes for Crusoe: hopes that his situation was merely a temporary inconvenience. Home is elsewhere, a place where he is not lonely. “Cr—uuuu—s—oe!”

After all, Crusoe’s loved ones were all waiting for him back in England. The Jewish intellectual, on the other hand, is not at home even at home.

His parents are here, the same mother and father as before and yet not the same. In the Old Country his father gave orders like a king. You saw before you a man with a straight back, head held high, with character, a man who knew his own worth, who knew who was boss. And you were impressed. You looked up to him with pride. He gave you strength; you had the feeling that you were not alone, that you had a father you could rely on in times of trouble, someone to turn to for advice, someone you could complain to, a shoulder to lean on. Someone to whom you could ask, “Father, do you understand?” and he would understand. But what is a father here in America? A milksop of a man, afraid to raise his voice, who looks at you with such a pitiful, submissive expression that he seems less like a father than like a serf. His heart doubtless brims in protest and yet he remains silent, smiling foolishly, repeating the excuse: “It’s America!”

Is it because he relies on his children for the few dollars he lives on that his pride has abandoned him and his backbone has grown so limp? In any event, your father cuts a pathetic figure; you feel shame for your own father. How could this be the same man? You feel alienated from your parentage and begin to feel sorry for yourself. Standing before him you are made aware of your own great solitude. You are all alone here. In your impotence you have no one to turn to, no one to confide in, and so you must swallow your own grievances.

Your mother is the same woman and yet not the same. Somehow she can’t quite seem to strike the right tone. “My dear son!” she says as she brushes some dust off your collar; she wants to say something and yet she is afraid to. She starts to speak and holds back. She has lost her equilibrium. She stands there, trembling, “My dear son!” Such comforting words. Why doesn’t she say more? Why does she not take your hand in hers like she used to back home, scolding you gently with clever words and a tender gaze? She extends her hand, but it hangs there in the air. She does not dare touch you. She is wary of her own child. She is ashamed to be sentimental in the pragmatic New World. She is afraid her son might say, “Mother, why are you pawing at my hand? There’s no money there!” She cannot seem to get settled in, here in America. You feel sorry for her and walk away with a broken heart, but you feel so cold, so cold and alone.

And your friends here? What has happened to them? Back home you studied with them, worked with them, and passed many pleasant hours in their company. They were always talkative and ready to take part in things. They always wanted to know how you were and were enthusiastic about telling you what they were up to. They would dream big and tell you all about their hopes, sharing sorrows and joys alike. And here? You seldom meet, and when you do visit a friend you don’t know where to begin. You sit together for a while in silence, in boredom. Someone asks out of politeness, “What’s new?” “Nothing much.” “Oh, you know, all right.” When things are going well for you, you feel like bragging a little to make your friend jealous. A serious conversation is not possible; the whole atmosphere works against it. It would sound strange if you suddenly came out with, “My friend, I feel unhappy; there’s something bothering me, etc. . . .” How could you, when the other person is so cold and distant? If he dared to, he would glance at his watch and ask, “How long are you planning to stay here, anyway?” He does not. But he cannot contain his yawns and is relieved when the conversation turns to the latest Charlie Chaplin picture—ay is he good! ay is he funny!—or to the suffragettes or any other current affairs. Then the tension slackens, and a tedious chat ensues while you sit with a heavy heart looking at your friend: it’s as though your friend is not your friend. He drones on about himself in a boastful tone à la Barnum and Bailey until you start to feel positively ill, but you sit there until the time comes to leave. You shake hands and you feel sure that years will go by before you see each other again. Suddenly there is a glint in your friend’s eye, something foolish, a bewilderment. His tongue falters, seemingly unable to wrap itself around a genuine heartfelt word. It seems that in the end he too had felt that something was not quite right. Perhaps an image flashed in his mind’s eye from the old days and he remembered the old friendship, causing him to feel regret. Perhaps. But what becomes of it? You leave, and you will either never see each other again or see each other less often than before.

Sometimes you attend gatherings of your landslayt, people from your hometown. Many people meet there, ordinary people. They sit and talk about everything under the sun, laughing, playing cards. They are content. They talk about work. You feel that there is a certain warmth there. One landsman helps another find a job at his workshop; a second landsman lends some money to another so that he can set himself up with a newsstand and escape the drudgery of sweatshop work; a third takes out an insurance policy because the insurance agent is a friend and needs a little helping hand. Another tries to find the address of the Mohel from the old country; he wants him to preside over his son’s bris here in the new country.

There is a flutter of home in the room. It beats its wings weakly, but it is there. But you, the intellectual, cannot adapt to this environment. You sit there as an outsider. The landslayt are welcoming to you, but you do not have much in common with them and you thank God when it is time to escape. They are strange to you and you are strange to them. This time it is not their fault; you are to blame, and yet you cannot really be blamed either. They are not the same “landslayt.” The thread that connected you to the ordinary people at home has been broken. Back home there were shared concerns—a shared town, a shared synagogue, a shared Judaism that enveloped you in its warmth. Here they look out for themselves, and you of course look out for yourself.

Can one compare the fate of Robinson Crusoe to that of a Jewish intellectual here? One is all alone on an island, without a home, while the other is not at home even at home. Crusoe, however lonely he was, was always productive. He constructed his own shelter on that island. He planted crops, hacked through the undergrowth, and went hunting, with rifle slung over his shoulder, to catch his own food. He took what few instruments he could salvage from his ship and built a little corner of civilization in the wilderness. He started from scratch. He was creative, productive. The island was without form and void, but only as long as it took for the spirit of Crusoe to move over it. He built things and made the island bloom. He must have been proud of himself, feeling the joy of creativity deep in his breast. He mustered all his strength and tamed the wilderness.

Can the immigrant Jewish intellectual in America say the same thing about himself? He is lost. His soul has been crucified, forced into a procrustean bed. He goes with the flow and everything is all right. Thus far, he has achieved very little here. Perhaps he has done things, taken part in projects. But it was all done inadvertently, without passion—merely pushing the wheelbarrow with the force of inertia, with dulled feelings, with self-loathing and loathing for those around you, feeling broken and alone, exposed to the storm within, helpless against the storm without.

Crusoe, during the saddest, most tragic moments of his life on the island—when the waters surged over his painstakingly built shelter, when all around gathered the harbingers of doom—never abandoned hope entirely. One hope must have consoled him throughout: “Sooner or later a ship will come along to take me back home, back to dry land.” He survived as best he could and waited. But what does the intellectual wait for when the waves crash against him, tearing off a new piece of his soul with each blow? He is afraid even to cry out in protest for fear of ridicule. What is he waiting for? Where will he be taken? Where should he flee to? There is no America to dream of when one already lives in America.

There is no hope. He bites his lip and holds his tongue, while the wound in his heart grows larger, infecting his blood.

And yet he lives on.

 

Daniel Kennedy is a translator based in France. He is the translations editor for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and was a two-time participant in the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Fellowship.

Subscribe Now