Saturday, 21 December 2019

Yekl by Abraham Cahan + #FreeBook

Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan
Published by D Appleton and Company in America in 1896.

Y for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and a Classics Club read

How I got this book:
Downloaded a free copy via Project Gutenberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The operatives of the cloak-shop in which Jake was employed had been idle all the morning. It was after twelve o'clock and the "boss" had not yet returned from Broadway, whither he had betaken himself two or three hours before in quest of work. The little sweltering assemblage—for it was an oppressive day in midsummer—beguiled their suspense variously. A rabbinical-looking man of thirty, who sat with the back of his chair tilted against his sewing machine, was intent upon an English newspaper.

Yekl is one of a selection of obscurely titled Project Gutenberg books I downloaded last week in an attempt to complete my 2019 Alphabet Soup challenge before I run out of year! It was first published in 1896, but I didn't feel as if the writing style dated from more than 120 years ago and the actions and attitudes of the characters are reflective of the present day. Yekl's themes of immigration and integration are very timely.

The novel follows Eastern European Jew Yekl, who has renamed himself Jake, through several months of his life in New York City. He arrived in America a couple of years previously and has already acclimatised himself to some extent. Jake is very much the young metropolitan man - cutting a dash at dances and entertaining a number of girlfriends - but he has a wife and child back in Europe desperately waiting for him to send their tickets to follow him. I loved Cahan's portrayals of Jake and of Gitl, his wife, even though I didn't actually like either of the people themselves. Jake is immature, selfish and, ultimately, weak. He treats Gitl appallingly allowing her no time to get used to American life but instead sneering at her backwards dress and behaviour. Gitl is, understandably, completely bewildered by her new environment. Even though the couple have rooms in the midst of a Jewish community, it comprises Jews from various nations and traditions so even their Yiddish differs from person to person. Cahan makes a brave effort to illustrate these pronunciations through differing phonetic spellings for each person. The idea comes across well, but I found the device detracted from my comprehension, especially in the early chapters. This annoyed me until Gitl arrives in New York and I realised that my earlier language difficulties were nothing compared to her experience!

Yekl is not a particularly long book, but I felt it gave an accurately detailed impression of New York life for Jews at the turn of the last century. Cahan expertly captures personality through speech so his characters spring to life and don't descend into caricature. I would recommend this novel for its immigration theme and also for its depiction of women's expectations in 1890s America. It was interesting for me to remember that Yekl isn't historical fiction, but was written at the time it is set so Cahan's ideas aren't filtered through a twenty-first century lens.

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Books by Abraham Cahan / Contemporary fiction / Books from America


  1. It's so uncanny how a book from 1896 can still fit in with the times now. It seems the saying 'history repeats itself' does have some merit!