World of Our Fathers - The New York Times

World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe - Commentary Magazine

World of our Fathers | Hot Topic 5/09

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made

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  • Not surprisingly, the first Jewish genealogical society of the postwar era was founded in New York about a year after World Of Our Fathers was published, an era that also saw the arrival of the first major works on Jewish genealogy — Dan Rottenberg’s Finding Our Fathers (1977) and Arthur Kurzweil’s From Generation to Generation (1980). World Of Our Fathers deserves to be remembered as a pioneering study that helped to kindle the current mass interest in our Jewish roots. Lauded by the New York Times Book Review as a “great book” when it first came out, it deserves to be remembered as such, and remains no less impressive upon second reading. ♦

    Like Fiddler On The Roof, the musical that had premiered only a few years before, World Of Our Fathers offered an unapologetic look backwards in what McLuhan called the rearview mirror. Also like Fiddler, it signaled to a fully integrated generation of American Jews that they need no longer turn a cold shoulder on the past; that it was safe to reclaim their collective shtetl and immigrant background without fear of being marginalized as “greeners.”

  • Howe’s dual talents as cultural anthropologist and literary critic reached a peak in his massive (more than 700 pages) masterwork, World Of Our Fathers. Usually celebrated as a tough political fighter in a regional intellectual arena that he shared with the likes of Norman Podhoretz, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy and others, Howe seemed content to put aside his boxing gloves and offer the reader a gentle, inviting bath of sweet nostalgia.

    Part of Howe’s apartness, of course, was his love and encyclopedic knowledge of Yiddish literature, a factor that certainly spurred his return to his Jewish identity. If he has claim to another fifteen minutes of fame beyond World Of Our Fathers, it is because he commissioned the translation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story from Yiddish into English, making the once-obscure Singer — who would win a Nobel prize and become the world’s most famous Yiddish writer — accessible to an English-speaking readership for the first time. The story was Gimpel the Fool and the translator was Saul Bellow.

    World of our fathers
    Irving Howe,Kenneth Libo
    Snippet view - 1983

  • World of Our Fathers
    Irving Howe,Kenneth Libo
    Snippet view - 1976

    Roughly three decades since its first appeared, World Of Our Fathers remains one of the best and most thorough studies of the immigrant culture of the Jews of the Lower East Side and, by extrapolation, their co-religionists in Toronto, Montreal and other large cities. Its sweeping survey of the shared urban universe of the Jews who came from the shtetls of Europe to New York reveals an astonishing level of research, methodically conducted over many years. One gets the impression that Howe had read the autobiography of every Jewish-American immigrant who had ever set pen to paper, as well as every issue of the Yiddish Forward and other local Yiddish newspapers from the late 1890s onward.

New York: New York University Press

There is a haunting phrase at the end of the introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, written twenty-two years ago by Irving Howe in collaboration with Eliezer Greenberg, which lingers in the imagination because it defines an impelling paradox of Jewish existence. Howe and Greenberg, after seventy-one luminous pages which trace the backgrounds and the guiding assumptions of Yiddish literature, ruefully note how this once folk-oriented literature now survives in isolated pockets of writers and readers still stubbornly clinging “to a language which for them is not only history but the answer to history.” It is an answer for them, of course, as it cannot be for us. Now, in an ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between them and us through a sustained act of imagination, Howe has written World of Our Fathers, a massive account of East European Jewish immigrant life in New York City and of the culture of Yiddishkeit that expressed most of the distinctive values the immigrants sought to transplant and cultivate on American soil.