College Bound

The Pursuit of Education in Jewish American Literature, 1896-1944

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Dan Shiffman
SUNY Series in Contemporary Jewish Literature and Culture
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , November
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438467238.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This study examines the work of a number of Jewish-American immigrant writers during the years 1896 to 1944. The theme of the works examined is the pursuit of education. These writers value education as a path to self-enlightenment, but are frustrated that schools and colleges offer only vocational learning in service to the goal of assimilation rather than an opportunity to realize “a life engaged in reflection, critique, and dialogue” (xi). Dan Shiffman explores this “tension between education as self-fulfillment and as socialization to conventional norms” (xi) in the dominant American culture.

Shiffman notes that the years 1890 to 1925 witnessed tremendous growth in college enrollment. This period coincides with the great wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe during what has been termed the second aliyah. Schools that absorbed these immigrants focused on teaching them skills needed for assimilation rather than for self-actualization. The stated goal of night school, the educational venue available to the working poor, was to turn immigrants into Americans. But as the author puts it, formal education failed to “engage the intellectual energy and deeper yearnings of Jewish students” (xxiii).

To examine the tension between these yearnings and educational institutions’ focus on vocational learning, Shiffman selects works by a variety of Jewish-American writers: Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, Elizabeth Stern, Rose Cohen, Anzia Yezierska, M. E. Ravage, Ludwig Lewisohn, Lionel Trilling, and Leo Rosten. It should be noted that earlier versions of three of the five chapters in this study—those on Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Leo Rosten—appeared in academic journals previous to the publication of this book, so it is not clear how much material in those chapters is new for this study. 

In 1917, Cahan, editor of the Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper read by the immigrant Jewish community, published his seminal novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which illustrates in one character the tension examined in Shiffman’s thesis. This novel is about a garment manufacturer who aspires to be an intellectual but whose real ambition is to acquire wealth and power. Shiffman also analyzes Cahan’s autobiography, The Education of Abraham Cahan (1905), which seems to be out of print today. This poses a real problem. Although Shiffman’s study serves to introduce the reader to some neglected Jewish-American writers in the context of their times and encourages 21st century readers to rediscover them, unfortunately a number of the works examined in this study are out of print. Shiffman himself is widely read, however, and punctuates the narrative with relevant and pointed examples and quotations from the literature he examines, as well as quotes from literary criticism. 

Students of Jewish-American immigrant literature may be familiar with the work of Anzia Yezierska, who wrote powerfully in her semi-autobiographical novel Bread Givers, and in Hungry Hearts and other works, about immigrant women who want to break free of the cultural and class boundaries imposed by gender role restraints. Her protagonists demand that immigrants like themselves be included in the shaping of America. Yezierska was “rediscovered” during the 1970s and 1980s women’s movement and her works resonate with passion. This chapter of Shiffman’s book, however, assumes the reader’s intimate familiarity with all of her published works, and this might be confusing to someone not a student of her writing.

A delightful counterpoint to Shiffman’s examination of the serious, dramatic fiction of the period is the chapter on Leo Rosten’s The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, which Shiffman calls “comic sympathy” (137). First published in the New Yorker in 1935 and in book form in 1937, it relates the comic encounters between dressmaker Hyman Kaplan and his night school teacher Mr. Parkhill. This is a good chapter with which to close a discussion of the tension between immigrants’ hopes that learning will liberate them and their experience that American education is a force bent on reining them in.

Shiffman, a secondary school teacher, states that good teachers do not quash students’ creative impulses, energy and ideas. This is reiterated throughout his book. The prose style of the narrative, however, is dense. In his effort to pack many points and quotes into nearly every paragraph, Shiffman makes it difficult for the reader to easily absorb the arguments. In short, the prose style is more like that of a dissertation, where continuous demonstration of literary criticism is important. One final suggestion: it would have been useful to the reader to include a bibliography of each writer’s works with original publication dates.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barbara Rader is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dan Shiffman teaches secondary English at the International School of Hamburg and is the author of Rooting Multiculturalism: The Work of Louis Adamic.

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