Sunday, February 2, 2014

East River by Sholem Asch

A 1946 NY Times Bestseller, this profound novel of Jewish life on the East side of New York touches on all the major themes of growing up in a NYC immigrant household with a Hasidic foundation: poverty, Anti-Semitism, Assimilation, the rise of the Jewish garment industry with emerging Socialism and Jewish radicalism through the growth of the Unions.  It is basically the story of a struggling Jewish family originally from Eastern Europe whose initial residence was the Lower East Side of Manhattan but moves up to 47th Street between First and Second Ave.  The family comprises an Orthodox couple named Davidowsky with two sons, one emerges as a very successful manufacturer in the garment trade, and the other a paralytic struggling to find his voice among the socialist activists.  The real main character of this story, however, is arguably, a sensitive daughter of an Anti-Semitic Irish Catholic who lives among the Jews in the neighborhood.  Although the book probes some very complex psychological issues relating to family dynamics, it analyzes the psychology of Anti-Semitism.  Asch's idealism shines force,however, that despite profound differences in religion, familial love ultimately triumphs.

Mary McCarthy, unable to pay cash, having been rejected by the Italian Catholic grocer, out of desperation, enters Moshe Wolf Davidowsky's grocery .  Mary's first stereo type of Jews is shattered when the Orthodox Jew warmly extends not only credit but also generously recommends traditional Irish corned beef.  She is introduced to Jewish kindness, something unheard of in her Catholic education.  She attributes her fate to Jesus' directing her there.  Her father acts violently upon hearing that his daughter did business with a Jew.  Her experience is different and she ends up befriending the paralytic and becomes his dresser and aid and even confesses being in love with him.

The book takes on a complex plot line making neighborhood childhood friends adult rivals: Catholic Mary competes with Jewish Rachel for the attentions of Irving, Moshe Wolf's younger son, successful businessman.  After surviving the famous Triangle Shirt factory fire at Washington Square, Mary decides on a course of action to maintain financial stability and marry Irving.  Irving goes against Jewish tradition on two counts by marrying out of the faith and denying the request of a man on his death bed.  With the mitigating circumstances of Mary's impending pregnancy  a la Irving and never having been officially committed to Rachel even though the entire neighborhood is under such an impression, Irving never fulfills the dying man's wish and marries Mary.  Irving, nevertheless uses Rachel to gain funding for his own company by taking out a loan from her wealthy Uncle.

When the intermarriage is revealed much soul searching ensues despite the traditional Shiva period as if one died, Moshe Wolf says kaddish for Irving.  The intermarriage seems intact, however, until Mary violates the agreement with Irving that the child not be raised in either faith when she brings the child to baptism in the Church. The married couple argue; Irving is devastated and Mary goes off on an anti-Jewish rant because such an agreement is illegitimate from the beginning from a Christian point of view and Irving should have known that from a Jewish point of view too.

The whole family is initially broken up and even disgraced in the Synagogue. Ultimately, the qualities of reconciliation and kindness triumph. Moshe Wolf struggles with the concept of an uncircumcised gentile grandson, "one to grow up and hate the Jews". Jewish concepts of never shaming a person, and of being merciful ring out in the piety of Moshe Wolf when he does not hold a grudge against Mary for baptizing her child.  He argues that the child goes after the mother.  All this time, Mary is overwhelmed with Moshe Wolf's piety and humanity.  There is even a hint at Mary's faith in Jesus beginning to wane since all of her Jewish experiences comprise of love, something that was lacking in her own family. The Davidowskys accept her even with her faith.

The Passover scene where Mary as a believing Catholic attempts at making sincere kosher preparations for her pious father in law seems to strain credibility.  What makes this book a compelling read is, however, the reality of assimilation in America and the American value of liberal acceptance.  The sad truth is when one lacks a strong faith, lacks a Jewish education, and strives to Americanize, then the Biblical prohibition of intermarriage is overwhelmed by simple love and acceptance.

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