Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb

An excellent selection of historical fiction about life on the Lower East Side of New York City is Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb.  Gollomb met success as Hollywood screenwriter, however, before mastering his craft as a writer he penned an authentic, if not autobiographical novel in 1935 about an immigrant Jewish family trying to succeed in the ghetto of the famed East Side of downtown Manhattan.

The story begins in Vilno where the pious antecedents live with the emerging winds of socialist  revolution sweeping Tzarist Russia.  The emigre family of 5 course their way through the labyrinth of life that takes them to the Jewish section of Manhattan to a rude introduction of poverty and squalor.  The heroic efforts of father and mother to eek out a living and provide a good life for their three children remind me of my own grandparents.  The book describes the filth and debauchery of the ghetto and how in spite of the negative environment, the family members persevere to achieve an education and an assimilation to American life.  The book is a discussion of the social ills that manifest a minority existence, an existence of not only class distinction between the rich and poor but also the hatred of Antisemitism.

Rachel Levitt, the mother struggles to calm her excitable husband who has trouble making a living.  Her whole existence is that of a wise, insightful selfless person.  She identifies with the world view of Socialism that the poor should not be exploited but cannot accept that her pious orthodox father and rabbinical brother are on the dark side of humanity.

Her oldest son, David the real protagonist struggles with his familial obligations over his desire  to lead an independent life.  He longs to be a writer and reporter, to assimilate into real society, however, his parents impress upon the need for practicality and push for a degree in teaching that would provide a steady income.  Along the way, one learns of the class differences between the heavily Jewish populated commuter school of City College of New York and the privileged private school of Columbia University. One lives through David's adventures and tragedies, his moments of love and despair.  Ultimately, David comes to terms with his situation that family obligation trumps his personal happiness and can't free himself from his family and neighborhood.

Judaism plays no role in this story except in a cultural way.  The Jewish ghetto is just another section of a diverse city with Italian, Irish and Chinese neighborhoods.  When David meets and falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, their is no explicit discussion of religious/cultural differences, however, there is tacit concern for the differences between the rich and poor.  Only when the protagonist's father dies and there is a funeral does the reader understand that there are serious differences between downtown Jews and uptown Non-Jews.

The story's title is disturbing because the immigrant experience is a highly pressurized existence that demands Americanization without the dispelling of one's cultural identity.  David's soul is "unquiet" because he is never master of his own life: support of family takes precedent over one's personal 'selfish' desires.

This is an outstanding volume, an authentic voice of the assimilating Jewish American.

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