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The central premise of Jewish survival,"" writes Howe, ""is a defiance of history; the cost, beyond measure."" No survival is more moving than that of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim who came to New York between 1880 and WW I. This long and loving act of homage minutely examines every facet of that idealistic, raucous struggle: the painful journeys from pogrom-racked eastern Europe to Hamburg or Rotterdam; the dreadful passage to Ellis Island and the dank warrens of the Lower East Side; the often condescending charity of the German Jews uptown; the transmutation of European socialist ferment into pioneering triumphs of unionization; the astonishing vigor of Yiddish literature, journalism, theater. Yet in the end Yiddish culture could not defy history. Its social, political, and artistic energy arose as the response of a belated Jewish Enlightenment to changing industrial and population patterns in 19th century eastern Europe. The American opportunity for assimilation--a direct challenge to Jewish attitudes toward galut (Diaspora) and the Judaic identity--called forth a contradictory wealth of further responses. It was these very contradictions that paradoxically gave American Yiddish culture (still very much in touch with the intellectual forums of European Jewry). its outrageous, precarious vitality. This remarkable culture achieved in a few decades what others have achieved in centuries, but (as Howe says of the Yiddish drama) ""it never had time in which to grow, nor the occasions fully to test itself"" before assimilation--and the paralyzing shock of the Holocaust. An indelible story handled with strenuous determination; Howe's solid qualifications in both labor history and literary criticism provide an unusual combination of strengths. On the other hand, his writing often has the savory charm of an overdone pot roast; his vast quantities of material degenerate into imposing but barely navigable ledgers of names and facts. Still, the impression that remains is of a son proud to honor those who have given us all--Jew or goy--more than we can begin to acknowledge. ""Let us now praise obscure men.

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 1975
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich