Jews Without Money, Mike Gold's 1930 novel was perhaps his most literary work. A somewhat fictionalized account of a little boy growing up in the Jewish section of the Lower East Side in New York around the turn of the century, the novel became a model for the "proletarian literature" for which Gold was a central advocate. While not the first, Jews Without Money preceded numerous novels that portrayed the lives, pleasures and struggles, of the U.S. working class. Many would be more "political" in that they pointed the reader more directly than Gold would in the direction of joining the Socialist movement.
The power of Gold's work was its vivid portrait of the difficulties of immigrants to adjust to the “new world” and the efforts of their children to establish themselves in ways that conform to the demands of the new place, rather than the world of their fathers and mothers. Gold described the survival strategies of the immigrants and the quest for new lives of their children through one year in the life of a Jewish boy-the year divided into spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Several interconnected themes are examined through the eyes of the boy. First, Gold describes the teeming tenements-overcrowded housing units, roaming crowds on the major streets, peddlers and pushcarts everywhere, horses slogging across the streets amidst the people, the markets, the kids running to and fro, and garbage strewn across the sidewalks after being thrown from five story walkup apartment buildings.
Second, along with the immediate and extended families of immigrants, thousands of children making their ways through the packed streets, Orthodox Jews, and men and women coming and going from 12 and 14 hour work days, Gold's narrator points out that the neighborhood was always a major red light district. Young women, compelled to prostitution by economic destitution, hang out along the major thoroughfares looking for business. The kids tease the young prostitutes without fully understanding what the prostitutes were doing. Many compassionate souls empathetic with their plight, like Mike Gold, befriend the prostitutes.
Third, Gold's description of the injustices of the capitalist system permeate the volume, but usually in an oblique way. Remembering the ubiquity of bedbugs reminds Gold of poverty, the root cause of these obnoxious creatures. "Did God make bedbugs? One steaming hot night I couldn't sleep for the bedbugs. They have a peculiar nauseating smell of their own; it is the smell of poverty...Bedbugs are what people mean when they say: Poverty. There are enough pleasant superficial liars writing in America. I will write a truthful book of Poverty: I will mention bedbugs."
Fourth, poverty related to crime. Prostitution was institutionalized and controlled by pimps. The Jewish tenements had its collection of petty gangsters who engaged in theft, physical intimidation, protection rackets, and other activities characteristic of an emerging system of organized criminality. This system of criminality was also a system of sexual exploitation and violence against women. The children of Jewish immigrants were represented in all of these activities but for Gold the explanation for their participation had more to do with America's avaricious capitalism and exploitation than anything in the Jewish tradition. "Ku Klux moralizers say the gangster system is not American. They say it was brought here by `low-class' European immigrants. What nonsense! There never were any Jewish gangsters in Europe. The Jews there were a timid bookish lot. The Jews have done no killing since Jerusalem fell. That's why the Christians have called us the `peculiar people.' But it is America that has taught the sons of tubercular Jewish tailors how to kill."
Fifth, Gold's portrait of the Lower East Side is a portrait of hopeful, bewildered, and increasingly disenchanted immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who find a new world vastly different from their expectations. Most of them strive to maintain their roots-in religion, in communal folkways, and in economic sustenance derived from the use of craft-based working skills learned in Europe. Tenements had dense concentrations of individual ethnic groups; in relative proximity to the Jewish neighborhood were Italians, Slavic peoples, Irish, Chinese people, and coming and going nomadic populations. While the Lower East Side was heterogeneous in its representation of various immigrant populations, it was relatively homogeneous within its individual neighborhoods. Consequently, the children of immigrants began to develop a territorial sensibility which led to border disputes and fights between gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. Each block was a separate nation, Gold reports.
Sixth, Jews Without Money is about the little boy’s parents, a father and mother each a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America. Mike Gold’s young father starts his life in America with hope, with a zest for life, with the firm belief he would become an economic success in his adopted land. A wild youth, Gold's father left Rumania to find a new world of economic advancement within a secular culture. Father tells the children folk tales from the old country, and entertains neighborhood friends with these renditions from the past. His religious practices in the “new world” are more limited in keeping with the vision of assimilation into American culture. But Gold's father becomes an economic failure-cheated by business partners and hustled by Jewish Tammany Hall businessmen/politicians. Finally as house painter he falls ill (broken legs, permanent lung disease) and spends his last years as a despondent invalid.
Gold's mother, more traditional in religion, less hopeful about America, and more a pessimist about the future, counterbalances the excesses of the vision of the father. Gold's mother represents the "realist" perspective about immigrant possibilities in the new land.
Finally, the characters in the Gold novel are always grappling with their Jewish identity. At one point the author reports about the enduring puzzle about God. "My mother was very pious. Her face darkened solemnly and mysteriously when she talked about her God. Every one argued about God. Mendel Bum, and Fyfka the Miser, and my Aunt Lena, and Jake Wolf, the saloonkeeper, and the fat janitor woman, and Mrs. Ashkenazi, of the umbrella store, and Mottke Blinder, and Harry the Pimp-all were interested in God. It was an important subject. When I discovered this, it became important for me, too."
Gold presents Jewish practitioners in an ambiguous light. He registers scorn for the bearded, physically repulsive, nasty Hebrew school teacher who makes a living off of the desires of Jewish parents to educate their children on the Torah. He presents a vignette about a Rabbi who is hired from Europe to lead a Chassidic synagogue. This rabbi extorts huge sums of scarce money from the community to buy a house in the suburbs and maintain a bloated salary. When this new rabbi gets a better financial offer from elsewhere, he precipitously announces his resignation.
However, Gold presents a few very pious Jews who are deeply committed to their traditions and their values. Reb Samuel gives of his life and treasure to hire the distinguished rabbi from Europe only to have his dreams dashed by the rabbi's desertion. At some point in the telling of the story of the Chassidic Shul and the development of the Reb Samuel character, the Reb is quoted linking religious vision to politics which may ultimately be the vision that Gold carried with him to the world of class struggle. Reb Samuel is explaining Chassidic Judaism to the young Mike. “You must learn to do good deeds, for every good deed hastens the coming of the Messiah. You want Him to look like Buffalo Bill. I tell you. He will not look like Buffalo Bill, nor will He kill any one. He will come to save the world, not to destroy it, like the false Messiah of the Christians. First He will redeem the Jews, then the other nations. This is why we now must suffer more than the rest of humanity. This is why Chassidim rejoice in the midst of suffering. We Jews have been chosen; we are fortunate. Do you understand what I am teaching you my child?"
In 1959, Gold wrote a series of articles in the Peoples World, the west coast newspaper of the Communist Party. They were reprinted and entitled "A Jewish Childhood in the New York slums." These essays elaborated on the experiences of the Jewish tenements-on the attraction of youth to sports, the love of Yiddish Theatre, the admiration for Mark Twain, Jewish gangsters, more experiences of mother and father, and weakening ties to Jewish rituals. These reflections were an extension of rather than a revision of the original novel. Not much had changed in his thinking about those experiences, between the novel's publication and the issuance of the essays, even after 29 years of Communist politics
Gold's political vision remained the same in 1959 as that expressed in the last lines of Jews Without Money. For its author they express what it meant to be a Jewish man of the Left.
"A man on an East Side soap-box, one night, proclaimed that out of the despair, melancholy and helpless rage of millions, a world movement had been born to abolish poverty.
I listened to him.
O workers' Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.
O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live.
O great Beginning!"
(This is the second of three essays on Mike Gold to appear in Diary of a Heartland Radical).