The Jewishness of Jews Without Money
By PAUL BUHLE
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the 1996 edition of Jews Without Money (originally
published in 1930) was how the political wrangling of the past had slipped into
history, leaving behind one of the most magnificent of Jewish-American sagas. Alfred Kazin’s
introduction to the new edition almost skipped over Michael Gold’s better-known
reputation as polemicist for the Daily
Worker and its literary counterparts through some thick and much
thin, all the way to Gold’s death in 1967. Jews Without Money had been written as Gold’s own personal
story of Jewish slum life with a heroic-political ending as brief and
irrelevant as the ending of a Hollywood melodrama. The real thing was the rest
of the saga.
And what a saga! The Yiddish short-story writer and dramatist Leon Kobrin
became known, mainly by virtue of his stories in the Forverts, as the “Jewish Zola,” chronicler of misery and impoverishment.
If the sobriquet had not already been earned, Gold would have had the best
claim. Original Sin is not the problem of the Lower East Side inhabitants;
poverty sinks into every corpuscle of their collective blood. The Sin is real,
but it belongs to the bullies and the braggarts. Generations before Woody
Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors
roasted the hypocritical figures among the Jewish-American arrivistes, Gold
lacerated the diamond-wearing matrons, the slum lords, the sweatshop kings, and
others who had scant mercy for their own people (and wanted to be accepted by
the Gentiles, preferably rich Gentiles, more than anything).
Not all the villains were Jews, by any means. Gold was keen on the Irish cops
of New York who took pride in drawing blood with their clubs at any Jewish
labor activity, especially if they could bash a young radical woman. He took in
the others, boxers to politicians, who were part of Jewish life but not of it.
But Gold was more interested in human consequences. In one of his famous
phrases, “America is so rich and fat, because it has eaten the tragedy of
millions of immigrants.”
Gold wrote, in his own introduction to the book, that he could not accept
America’s gods because he had his own idol: his mother. If this sounds amazingly
saccharine for an avowed atheist and revolutionary, it is nevertheless the
deepest sentiment in the novel and the one that rings the truest after all
these years. A wife: a “buttinski” and reformer, self-sacrificing for anyone in
trouble, literal midwife for home births, defender of neighbors threatened by
drunken husbands, also proud to be Jewish in no small part because antisemitism
showed how low and animalistic the haters were—all this thanks to a marriage
broker. Jewish also because the memory of Europe, the relatives left behind in
Europe, one might suggest the 800 years of Yiddishkayt, was inextricably part of her sense of family
and self. What would a Jew be without that memory, or the generosity of spirit
toward the poor that his mother represented?
Jews Without Money, the
testimony of Michael Granich aka Mike Gold, is alive as long as Jewish-American
immigrant history plays a vivid role in collective memory—and that shows no
sign of dissipating. For all Gold’s particularities, it’s certain that the
election of Barack Obama with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic support of Jewish
voters is one more reminder that if poverty is the real sin, reform offers
redemption. Mike Gold knew it a long time ago.