Monday, July 2, 2012

Ludwig Lewisohn's The Island Within

This book was published in 1928 recently after the height of Jewish European immigration (1880-1924). It is a a powerful statement repudiating the assimilation of the American Jew.

The book is similar to I.J. Singer's The Family Carnovsky in that it is a family epic story.  The family originates in Vilna that great Jewish city and makes its way to America like so many others.  Each succeeding generation becomes more bewildered about the necessity of a Jewish identity.  The book is very dated in that Freud and Psychoanalysis are fresh, and the protagonist's lover/wife is a feminist, newly associated with women's suffrage.  She is depicted as a kind soul who does not want to be tied down to a man or family but wants to pursue her career.  What I found fascinating was the author's take on feminism.  In the words of the protagonist, a psychoanalyst, the feminist has a "inferiority complex" because she is never satisfied with her own identity as a woman and must constantly compete with a man.  The relationship starts off well and the husband is accommodating to his wife's needs.  Ultimately, the marriage fails despite the fact they are parents to a baby boy.

The interchange between immigrant father and psychoanalyst son is powerful in the acceptance of intermarriage:  The immigrant father says about intermarriage 'you will not be happy' but 'we will not be the cause of your unhappiness because we will accept and treat your wife as she is our daughter!'  So the son asks why do 'you think I will be unhappy?'  Says the father: 'They hate us.'  As the story unfolds what the father calls 'hate' turns out to be non-acceptance or a certain expectation that does not exist among family members.  Expressions like 'your kind' or 'you people' slip out innocuously.  I recall as an adolescent my excitement to share challah bread with someone I was very much enamored.  My excitement and enthusiasm turned to disappointment when her reaction was 'what's the big deal! This is just egg bread!'  For me, to call challah 'egg bread' (even though that is exactly what it is) is a diminution of a whole history!  I came to a realization as an adolescent, I could never marry out of my Jewish community.

The book's message is a powerful observation that the Jewish person should not try to be someone he is not because everyone around him sees him as a Jew.  Either there is the eternal hatred of the Jew that can not be erased or even evaded or one should realize that everyone has an ancestral history that should be welcomed and accepted and not denied.

The book is about the subtle nature of Anti-Semitism in America.  The USA does not have the deep seated open hostility and historical Anti-Semitism.  Here in a America, the words are soft and sound harmless however they have a stinging aftereffect upon reflection.

Lewisohn was a founding faculty member of Brandeis University because he experienced first hand the need for an unencumbered Jewish environment. Although I am not convinced that the book will resonate with a 21st century audience, nevertheless, there is tremendous insight into the immigrant and first generation American Jew who rushed to 'be American' at the expense of Jewish identity.

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