World of Our Fathers

by Irving HoweHarcourt Brace Jovanovich, $ 14.95
“The happy and the powerful.” said Tocqueville. “do not go into exile.” “Yes,” responds Irving Howe, “but sometimes the aroused and determined do.” The aroused and determined exiles in question are the two million Jews who, propelled by shared hopes and unbearable provocation, left their homes in Eastern Europe around the turn of this century and settled in New York, changing immeasurably their lives, the life of that city, and eventually the life of the entire country.
World of Our Fathers is an extraordinarily rich and charming history, a scholarly yet thoroughly entertaining work. Gathering material from published sources, memoirs, letters, taped reminiscences, Howe evokes scenes of life on the Lower East Side—in the tenements, the sweatshops, in the schools and on the streets-its squalor and its vitality. He analyzes, too, the instinct for freedom that brought and kept the immigrants here despite dreadful hardship, an instinct that refined itself, through the next generation, beyond a sense of cultural self-preservation into an impulse to think and speak freely about the whole of the human condition, to create literature, entertainment, political thought and action.
The book does make too quick and cursory a transition from the generation of immigrants to the generation that has accepted what Howe calls “the suburban compromise.” He says such lucid and perceptive things about what has at last become of Jewishness in America that it’s a pity he doesn’t begin to say them sooner. That is a minor complaint, though, and one easily overlooked in consideration of the scope and intention of the book.
Howe modestly leaves himself off the lists of the sons of the Lower East Side who have helped to shape American thought. Clearly, he belongs prominently among them.
—Amanda Heller