Jews Without Money
Jews Without Money is based on its author’s own childhood, Michael Gold. It re-creates the Jewish immigrant Lower East Side in Manhattan in which he lived, and it provides insight into the life of first- and second-generation Jewish Americans around the turn of the twentieth century. Gold does a wonderful job at putting the reader right in the middle of the sights, smells and sounds of people who may be materially poor, but very rich emotionally. The book paints for the most part a bleak picture of Jewish immigrant life in America, a picture that will remain bleak, the book’s ending implies, until the workers’ revolution occurs. In this paper I will discuss few issues that come up in the book and in the documents that we have read over the past month, along with a brief summary of the book as well.
As the central character and narrator, Mike grows and learns more and more about the struggles that his parents and their neighbors undergo to earn a living. Mike’s father had been a housepainter, but he is disabled by a fall and by lead poisoning. At one point in the book, Mike finds him trying to earn money selling half-rotten bananas. We find out Mike’s mother is the central figure in the family. She supports them by working in a cafeteria and cleaning various apartments. After and before work, she takes care of her ill husband and children. On a terribly snowy winter day, Mike’s younger sister, Esther, goes out into the streets to collect wood for the stove where she is run over by a truck and dies. A lawyer comes to their home and says that if the mother and father sign a paper, he will get them a thousand dollars from Adams Express, the company that operated the truck. Herman wants to sign the lawyer’s paper, but Katie throws him out of the house. It is, she says, “blood money.” Repeatedly, Mike learns how terrible life is for people in America without money, especially Jews. They need to cope not only with poverty but also with anti-Semitism. When Mike uses a dirty word in school, his teacher washes out his mouth with soap, as well keeps calling him “Little Kike.” Herman and Katie are furious because the soap the teacher uses was not kosher. When a politician sends them a Thanksgiving meal, Katie asks Mike to tell her the story of Thanksgiving. After he narrates the tale of the Pilgrims, his mother decides that Thanksgiving is “an American holiday . . . and not for Jews.” The family cannot even eat the beautiful, fat turkey because it is not kosher. When Herman seems to be doing well in the housepainting business and thinks he will begin to earn more money, he falls from a ladder and cannot work. After Esther dies, the mother also is unable to work. When the family is nearly starving, a man from the United Charities visits them and asks all kinds of personal questions, including whether Herman beats Katie. Herman throws the man out of the house. Mike concludes that “starvation was kinder” than organized charity. Mike keeps hearing from those around him that the Messiah will come and lead the Jews to the Promised Land. He asks his neighbor, Reb Samuel, a very religious man, about the Messiah. Reb Samuel, who teaches Mike about Judaism, describes a “pale, young and peaceful” Messiah, but Mike prefers one who looks like Buffalo Bill and “could annihilate our enemies.” At age twelve, Mike quits school to go to work. He finds a variety of unpleasant, sometimes hellish jobs and discovers anti-Semitism in employment. Even some businesses owned by Jews, he discovers, refuse to hire Jews. One night, he hears a man on a soapbox declare that a world movement is coming to end poverty. Listening to him, Mike learns about the workers’ revolution, which he calls “the true Messiah.” The revolution, he says, forced him to think, struggle, and live. The book then ends with the words, “O great Beginning!”
One of the first documents we read was “The Constitution of the United States of America (1789)”. The title of...
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