The Inevitable Pit

Stephen Greenblatt writes about his family and the New World

I am an American who thinks of himself (interchangeably, with increasing degrees of specificity) as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi and a Litvak, but this self-identification, I have to acknowledge, is strange. It is true that my grandparents were born in Lithuania: my father’s parents in Kovna, my mother’s in Vilna. But they left for America sometime in the early 1890s, and, with a single exception, it was more than a century before anyone in my family returned for a visit. No one seems to remember the precise year of their departure or even the precise occasion, though there was somewhat vague talk, when I was growing up, about the need to escape a tsarist Russification scheme that centred on drafting eligible young Jewish men into the Army for 25-year terms of military service. I know that the Russian Government lurched between wanting to isolate Jews in a carefully demarcated Pale of Settlement, as if they were a dangerous virus, and wanting to swallow and absorb them by destroying their separate identity. Twenty-five sounds suspiciously like a mythic number, but Russian reality has often had a mythic quality, so it is possible that some such scheme at one time existed, and even a much shorter term of military service would have seemed almost unendurable, particularly to anyone who was committed, as were both my grandfathers, to observing Kashrut and keeping at least a reasonable number of the other commandments.

My grandparents must, in any case, have had very little stake in staying in Lithuania: they were young and poor, and they had relatives who had already ventured off to the New World and sent back encouraging reports, along with money to help pay for their passage. I have no doubt that they wanted to maintain their religious identity: they lived out the rest of their lives as reasonably pious, observant Jews, keeping kosher homes, going to shul, sending their sons to cheder, saying Kaddish for their dead.[*] But they left Eastern Europe not only and perhaps not principally as religious refugees; they were economic migrants, participating in a vast movement of populations from the stagnant economies and closed communities of Eastern and Southern Europe to the vibrant, shifting, unstable, largely unregulated society of the United States. Like so many others in the decades before 1914 – the great masses of Sicilians and Calabrians, of Poles, Ukrainians and Romanians, along with the Irish, the Germans and the Swedes – my grandparents packed up their few treasured belongings (a pair of candlesticks, a heavy brass mortar and pestle, the formal clothing they are wearing in the old sepia photographs) and said their farewells. They left quickly and illegally – in the case of my maternal grandparents, escaping across the border hidden beneath the straw of a peasant’s wagon – made their way to a port city, sailed seasick and miserable in steerage, passed through Ellis Island, and headed off to wherever they had contacts with those who had preceded them.

On landing in the New World, my relatives stayed in the cities of the North-East – Boston, New York and Montreal. (This allows us to say with some confidence that they were not leaving Lithuania because of the climate.) There were only two exceptions. One couple evidently boarded the wrong train and wound up in Savannah, Georgia, where in a scant generation they became drawling Southerners with dubious opinions about race relations and strong regional enthusiasms. (My father’s cousin, Mike Greenblatt, wrote a well-known football song: ‘I’m a rambling wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer.’) Another relation ventured out west, with his wife and two small children, to try his hand as a pedlar in Wyoming. This was the occasion of the unique return to Lithuania to which I have alluded: after some years in what must have been a singularly raw and difficult environment, the pedlar’s wife, declaring that it was simply too difficult to get kosher meat, returned with her daughter to Vilna. This was not, in historical perspective, a wise decision. The pedlar became the wealthy and successful owner of a department store in Cheyenne, which he left to his son. Decades passed and, in the late 1930s, the son, who remained unmarried all his life, received a letter in Yiddish, written in a shaky hand by the mother who had abandoned him. She begged him to send money for his sister’s passage to America, but, emotionally wounded and ambivalent, he delayed, and subsequently both his mother and his sister perished in the Holocaust.

But it was not any premonition of world-historical disaster that drove my relatives away from Eastern Europe, nor were they determined, like the Hasidim, the Amish, or for that matter the Puritans, to cling tenaciously in the New World to a strictly separate mode of life. To be sure, my grandparents lived in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood – now a predominantly African American neighbourhood – and they attended a shul whose chants and customs greatly resembled what they would have known in Lithuania. At home they spoke their fantastically expressive Yiddish, rich in curses, charms to ward off the evil eye, and terms of endearment. The women cooked the heavy, heart-attack inducing food – flanken, kreplach, tzimmis, zoyas, blintzes, and chicken soup glistening with droplets of schmaltz – that had delighted and killed off their own parents and grandparents. And they clung to a set of distinctions that seemed, by the time I encountered them, as mysterious, impenetrable and irrelevant as the differences, savoured by Italians, among Genovese, Milanese and Torinese. Somehow my father always seemed to know, as if by occult signals, not only whether a person in the news or a performer on stage or someone he had just met was Jewish but whether he was Litvak, Galitzianer or Russisher, fine distinctions that seemed to matter to him, though I could never figure out why or in what way. When I was growing up, it seemed particularly absurd to me that, because her parents had come from Vilna rather than Kovna, my mother, born in Boston, somehow regarded herself as ineffably superior to my father, also born in Boston, and still more absurd that my father seemed to accede to this distinction. But, in retrospect, I recognise that these distinctions were signs that the inner world of Eastern Europe had survived for a half-century after the exodus.

It had survived, but it was fading fast. My grandparents came to America to improve their lot, or, more accurately, to make it possible for their children to do so. Certainly, my paternal grandfather, who was his whole life a poor ragpicker with a horse and wagon, did not dramatically advance his own fortunes; I imagine he could have done what he did just as well in Kovna. But what could not have happened in Kovna – or at least was wildly unlikely to have happened – was the uncoiling, as it were, of the spring of educational and professional ambition in the next generation. Though the family had almost no money, my father, their only son, managed to go to law school. He would put his shoes outside his door at night so that his father, the ragpicker, could polish them.

By the late 1940s, my father’s modest success as a lawyer had propelled the family out of poverty and into the middle class with its potent symbols: a car, a house in the suburbs, a television set, summer vacations at the seashore in Maine. These symbols were the same as those to which the Irish and the Italians and the Poles aspired: in one generation the fundamental shape of my family’s life had become virtually indistinguishable from that of everyone else. It was no longer conspicuously Eastern European, or Litvak, or even Jewish: it was quite simply American. When my parents listened to popular radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly or Burns and Allen, when they watched I Love Lucy or the Ed Sullivan Show, when they went to Red Sox baseball games and outdoor concerts by the Boston Pops, they were participating in a collective culture that did not acknowledge – either with interest or dislike – their difference.

There was an inherent contradiction, or at the very least a grave tension, between the desire of my grandparents to enter the economic mainstream of American life and their desire to retain what we could call their culture, if by that term we mean a relatively stable and well-demarcated set of traditional religious, social and aesthetic practices and values. To be sure, virtually all of their friends were fellow Litvaks, for the most part family members, as were most of their business associates. But they sent their children to public schools, which meant English language education, and though they predominantly spoke Yiddish at home, they learned English and used it in their everyday lives.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] The following is a list of English equivalents of some of the Yiddish words and expressions not already glossed in the article or commonly known. Shul: synagogue; cheder: religious school; unglick: misfortune; shiksa: non-Jewish woman; goyishe kop: gentile mind; tref: non-kosher food; mamzer: bastard; minyan: a prayer quorum of ten Jewish men. The original meaning of schmaltz is ‘cooking fat’.

[†] Still the New World was reviewed in the LRB of 18 May by David Bromwich.