The Jewishness of Jews Without Money


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.