Di goldene medina. That vision of a “golden country,” where one could reach down and pick up gold nuggets from the streets – or at least where Jews would be given the opportunity to earn enough money to support their families and to worship God as their ancestors had for millennia – inspired millions of Eastern European Jews mired in poverty and repression.
So how was that paradise working for Eastern European Jews living in the great New York City ghetto during the two decades after the turn of the 20th century?
Not so well, writes Jerome Charyn, author of the novel Ravage & Son.
Jews lived horrible lives in early 1900s New York
Almost every official that the Jews dealt with was tainted, Charyn says.
In the courts, “judges, clerks, politicians’ runners, bail bondsmen, cops, doormen, attendants, shoeshine boys, and candy peddlers – flailed the hides of those poor souls who were arraigned while they fattened their own pocketbooks.”
Rotten policemen would arrest some poor soul on trumped-up charges and tell his relatives to sell their possessions and bring $500 to an official or the poor guy would find himself in prison.
Violence and crime were everywhere, and the poverty was deep-seated and unending. Poverty, of course, causes social problems – like teenage prostitution and adultery.
“Adultery was a common enough theme in the Ghetto,” writes the author, “where wives, husbands, and boarders were packed into tenements, rushed half naked in and out of some toilet in a darkened hall.”
In the face of this dystopian nightmare, very few Jews chose to return to their former homes in the Austrian, Russian, or German empires – a testament to the horrors of Jewish life in those places.
To help New York City’s downtrodden Jews is a real-life hero, Abe Cahan, who scourged the crooked officials in his Forward newspaper and gave advice to poor Jews in his column, A Bintel Brief (A Bundle of Letters).
In that column, “Cahan himself would offer his advice, not like some potentate on the tenth floor, but as a friend, a secular rabbi, like Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, transported from the eighteenth century and the Vilna ghetto to the Ghetto of East Broadway.”
Cahan had rescued a boy from a Jewish orphanage and sent him to Harvard. When that boy, Ben Ravage, the illegitimate son of a sadistic, uber-wealthy Jew, graduates, he returns to the ghetto to work for the Kehilla.
That organization, composed of wealthy German Jews, earlier arrivals to America, tries to keep order in the ghetto – partly from good intentions to help their fellow Jews, but also to prevent the besmirching of American Jewry by the newly arrived, somewhat uncouth Russian Jews.
But Ravage’s wealthy and powerful benefactors were not enough to prevent his destruction.
The sudden twists and turns in Ravage & Son’s ever-changing plot are sometimes hard to follow. But the storytelling is off-the-chart wonderful, and the gritty images of Jewish life in New York and the historical and fictional characters who live there – Lionel and Ben Ravage, Jacob Schiff, Babette Bristol, Abraham Cahan, Manya Rabinowitz – continue to bounce around in my head.
Yes, I loved the book. But if the author was trying to communicate something to his readers – besides depicting the poverty and violence that comprised the life of most Eastern European Jewish immigrants living in New York in the early 20th century and, in so doing, debunking the “goldene medina” myth – in my case, he failed.
The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available online and at bookstores.
Ravage & SonBy Jerome CharynBellevue Literary Press287 pages; $17.99