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'Jews Without Money' by Michael Gold
Last uploaded : Monday 6th May 2002 at 21:55
Contributed by : Carol Gould


Last year I wandered into an antiquarian bookshop in Charing Cross Road where I came upon a small, yellowing volume entitled ‘Jews Without Money ’ by Michael Gold, penned in 1930. On the train to Bournemouth a few days ago for my first holiday in many a moon, I set about reading this little book. It is not often that I am oblivious to the scenery around me in this ‘green and pleasant land’ but Gold’s book was so captivating that I was transported to the Lower East Side of New York in a mere flash and forgot I was on a train coursing through rural Dorset in England.

Recounting life as a young boy in New York in the years leading up to the Great Depression, ‘Jews Without Money’ is at times painfully graphic with its descriptions of the abject squalor in which these immigrants lived. Brutally frank, often stomach-turning accounts of life in the rat-infested ghettoes that teemed with penniless Jews are juxtaposed with hilarious stories of family gatherings for mitzvot and political debates. (The poverty of that era inspired many immigrants to embrace Socialist ideals, with some emigrating to Palestine.)

It is a life that sounds as harsh and unforgiving as that described by the BBC in present-day refugee camps, but these young Jews, jam-packed into grimy tenements and subjected to regular beatings by anti-Semites when they venture out from their ghetto, only engage in boyish games and study, defending themselves in the occasional fistfight. Jewish girls are reduced to the ultimate indignity of prostitution -- an element of early American Jewish history not often discussed in polite company – and the drift into criminality is common amongst the men who in the old country would have remained within the law.

To me the most significant words of this book are ‘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 murder-loving Christians have called us the ‘peculiar people.’ But it is America that has taught the sons of tubercular Jewish tailors how to kill..’

Until I had seen the line ‘Jews have done no killing since Jerusalem fell’ in print I had thought this to be the stuff of legend; on how many occasions at dinner parties in recent months in London have furious ‘Guardian’ and ‘Independent’-readers screeched at me about Israeli brutality, suggesting that ‘You Jews have always had a history of brutality..’ When I have retorted with the line ‘We would never have lifted a finger had the Arab states not chosen war since 1948’ they throw their arms up in despair, asserting that Israeli (ergo Jewish) violence has caused ‘such a calamity in Palestine’ – not the many costly wars perpetrated by Israel’s neighbours.

Gold’s book is rich with imagery of the American mass-immigration era, peppered with splendid vignettes of the characters populating the ghetto: Louis One-Eye, the Magic-Maker, Gyp the Blood and the Gambler Rosenthal.

Gold observes, ‘The Red Indians once inhabited the East Side: then came the Dutch, the English, the Irish, then the Germans, the Italians and Jews. Each group left its deposits, as in geology.’ He goes on to describe the events of an ordinary day: at the Lutheran Church ‘..the owlish little sexton was scrubbing on the porch with soap and water a tall wooden statue of Jesus. ..The elder Jews were especially cynical. ‘For this stick of wood we were slaughtered in Europe!’ Describing the fury of an Orthodox mob at the funeral of a Jewish girl who had married out, he observes, ‘Every persecuted race becomes a race of fanatics.’

The hardships these immigrants suffered has often been forgotten by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live comfortable lives in California, Colorado or Florida, but the well-written tableau of the Jewish festival year – shaded with tragic periods of shiva in a world of disease and hunger -- leaves a deep impression to which every Jew will relate. The misery of the lives of our forebears, in the context of the achievements of the Jews in subsequent generations in every country in which they have lived – not to mention the Shoah, the seeds of which Gold would not have had an inkling at the time of this book’s writing – is a salutary experience that makes this book a must.

Coming back from Bournemouth I wondered why this book – which I had assumed was long out of print -- is not required reading in Jewish upper schools. To my relief I discovered by going to Amazon.com that ‘Jews Without Money’ is now regarded as one of the great classics of twentieth-century Jewish literature. It has been reprinted in several editions and is available from Amazon.


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