When Jews dreamed of New York. About ‘Motl in America’

After having published a review of Motl in America a month ago[1], Mitchell Abidor returns in his text to this extraordinary tale of Jewish immigration to the United States. Blending his family’s memories with Sholem-Aleichem’s account, Abidor recounts the journey to the “Promised Land”, the new arrivals’ disorientation and their acculturation to American society. Above all, he pays tribute to the unfailing optimism of these Jews who had left “Pogromland”.


Ellis Island


I’ve often blessed the day – December 12, 1909 – that my grandfather, then Leib, later Louis Abidor, landed at Ellis Island, leaving his native Russia behind forever.  After the perils and restrictions imposed on Jews under the Tsar,  over the subsequent 114 years my family has suffered from no dangers, has grown and met with success and with some failure.  Never has its Jewishness marked it as a target.  It’s been a good century for us and for the country’s Jews in general. In fact, every century has been a good one for our fellow-Jews in America, which I consider to be the true Promised Land. Shaking off the dust of the Old World has allowed us to live full, unfettered lives, just as the first generation of my family was certain it would. My grandparents never spoke about their lives in the Pale of Settlement: it was gone, a dim memory that they never brought to mind. They were Americans, and so am I. My grandmother said it best. When, after graduating college, I announced I was leaving for Israel, she shook her head and said in her thick Yiddish accent: “Mitchell, you’re an American.” She was right. 

The great bard of the immigrant generation my grandparents were part of was Sholem Aleichem, chronicler of shtetl life and inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, which gave body (and music and dance) to the world they so easily abandoned. The immigrants seldom volunteered information about the past, and their children – my parents’ generation – never asked, busy as they were becoming Americans. Aleichem, who himself moved to America and died here in 1916, prolific as he was, only dedicated a relatively small number of his tales to life in America. Those tales are now available in French, constituting the second volume published by L’Antilope of the unfinished series Motl, The Cantor’s Son. These stories, available in several English translations, provide an invaluable source for the process that led the Jews to emigrate en masse along with the travails involved in that voyage. With his usual deft, light hand Sholem Aleichem takes us along with little Motl, not yet ten years old, and his family as they struggle in their native Kasrilevka, cross Europe, cross the Atlantic, and establish themselves in the goldene medina: America.[2].

His writing in the Motl stories is a pure distillation of the everyday life of the Jewish population of America. It’s a comforting vision, one with difficulties, to be sure, but little darkness. Not for Sholem Aleichem the misery we find in later fiction on immigrants...

The first half of Motl the Cantor’s Son appeared in 2022 in French, and though it’s possible to read each of the two French volumes as standalone works, it’s preferable to read the two together. It’s only in this way that the sweep of the immigrant experience can be felt.

In the first volume Motl’s father, the cantor, is ill and the family impoverished. The father dies and the family must find a way to keep its head above water. Motl’s older brother, Elyahu, buys a book containing methods by which to become rich. Following the book’s instructions, he seeks wealth by making kvass, by manufacturing ink, and by ridding houses and businesses of vermin. All his undertakings fail. In the meanwhile, little Motl proclaims “I have it good, I’m an orphan,” for he no longer has to attend Cheder [traditional Jewish school]. Finally, in a rapid shift, the family decides to leave for America. There’s no discussion of the why of it, no other destination is even considered. There has been no pogrom in their village, life there is a dead end and America is the escape hatch.

Motl in America was published as a serial between 1914 and 1916 and was Sholem Aleichem’s final work: he died in the middle of a word in the final published tale. It was the only work he wrote that took place in America, to which he moved in in 1914 and where he died and is buried. His popularity was owed not just to the charm of his stories, to the humor he infused into the disorienting world the immigrants had moved to. His writing in the Motl stories is a pure distillation of the everyday life of the Jewish population of America, and more particular, of its largest population center, New York’s Lower East Side. It’s a comforting vision, one with difficulties, to be sure, but little darkness. Not for Sholem Aleichem the misery we find in later fiction on immigrants like Mike Gild’s Jews Without Money or Henry  Roth’s Call It Sleep. His is a comforting picture of a neighborhood that in the early twentieth century had a population density as high as that of Calcutta. Alecihem, it should be noted, never lived in the neighborhood, spending his New York years first in Harlem and then in the Bronx. There is a bright side to the worst happenings, because his Jews are now in a place in which they can feel happy and safe. They are in America. But the road there is not an easy one.

A large portion of the account of Motl’s trip to America is taken up with the trip from Kasrilevka across Europe. When we picture the immigrants’ voyage we think of it as they left their villages, they got on a ship, they arrived in Ellis Island, and the New Life began. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sholem Aleichem doesn’t spare us the miseries of the trip, which closes the first volume. When I asked my grandparents about their trip to America all I ever was told was how pitch dark it was when my grandmother left her shtetl (which she never named) in Minsk gubernia. And yet they had to traverse the thousands of miles from Russia to New York. Aleichem fills in this blank in the life of the immigrants, which usually focuses on the crowded steerage and then the sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. These pages are perhaps the most bitter in the book.

Aleichem wrote for an audience that knew the reality of immigration all too well, and so Ellis Island, so sentimentalized now as the gateway to America, is presented the way the immigrants viewed it, as a place to fear.

Motl, his family, and their companions must first make it across the Russian border, doing so without any papers. They pass through Brod, Cracow, Lemberg, Vienna, Antwerp, and London, losing along the way their most precious possessions: their bedding, in which Motl’s mother for some reason thinks America is lacking. They deal with thieving human smugglers, but more importantly the indifference and even hostility of the various Jewish immigrant aid agencies scattered along their path, all staffed by fellow-Jews. Solidarity is a rare thing on the way to America. The final stage, the voyage aboard the Prince Albert is a tiny bit of hell. But America finally looms before them. “Hello to you, Columbus. We greet you land of the free! Oh, golden, happy land.” Cries the family’s friend Pinye.

Aleichem wrote for an audience that knew the reality of immigration all too well, and so Ellis Island, so sentimentalized now as the gateway to America, is presented the way the immigrants viewed it, as a place to fear. Yes, the newly arrived were given something to drink and something to eat, but it was here that their fates would be decided. There was a real chance of being turned away by the authorities. During the trip across Europe Motl’s mother was told not to cry, that crying would make her look like she had trachoma, which was enough to get her sent back to Europe. Two strangers are even driven to wed as a way to be admitted. But our heroes are allowed to enter, joined by Mendl, a child who’d gotten separated from his parents during the trip across Europe. They have finally arrived.

The New York of yesteryear was no less noisy than the New York of today, a noisy place: “Boom badaboum! Tac-tac-tac! Crac! Dzin-dzin-dzin-ding-ding-dong! Oh wow! Tut-tut-tut-tut-tut! Ouuuf ! Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay! And again boom-boom! Tac-tac-tac! The world becomes strange, a gehennom [hell] inhabited by strange beings. In terms that illustrate his character’s unfamiliarity with the world, but also a writing style that marks a past where anti-Black racism was the norm, Aleichem describes Motl’s astonishment as he finds himself sitting one day “between two goys, both Black. A man and a woman. Massive creatures. Huge lips. Big white teeth, white nails. They’re chewing on something, ruminating like oxen”. Noise, Black people and chewing gum are Motl’s first discoveries. Welcome to America.

Few Eastern European immigrants spoke English, but English crept into their Yiddish, and Nadia Dehan-Rotschild and Evelyne Grumberg’s translation skillfully incorporates phonetic transliterations of the new language insinuating itself into the immigrants’ vocabulary: Motl works in a grosseri store as a delivere boille, helping costomeurs by climbing with their packages all the way to the tope flore. The translators wisely leave the word “goy” in Yiddish, while in the excellent Penguin translation by Alice Shverin she chooses to call them “gentiles,”  depriving the adjective of all its savor. The French translators in a way have the easier job, since injecting transliterated English into a French text is an obvious task; how do you insert English into English?

We are meant to laugh at family friend Pinye’s constant praise of America, of Columbus, of Washington and Lincoln. But at heart, Sholem Aleichem feels it as well.

Motl’s family experiences the full gamut of experiences attached to being an immigrant in New York. They have to share a flat – one with hot and cold running water –  with another family; the men find jobs and lose them. New trades are learned, for “this is America, and in America there’s nothing a person cannot learn to do.”Exploitation is the lot of the working man: being minutes late for work results in the loss of half a day’s wages. A union is formed, a strike is called. The employers hold firm and the workers are fired. The immigrants learn that America might be a better place, but it’s not a perfect place.

And yet, how can they complain? They learn that a pogrom lasting three days swept through Kasrilevka, and before long Jewish Kasrilevka is reconstituted on the Lower East Side. Even their old rabbi is now in Manhattan. The New World is the new home of their old world, but better. 

Sholem Aleichem is often described as the Jewish Mark Twain, but that’s not quite true, especially in the case of Motl The Cantor’s Son. Twain is a writer with an eye for the hypocrisy and ugliness of life, whether his books are set in Missouri or in the distant past. They are often meant to provoke laughter, but they are not comforting works. Motl in America is a positive book even when it describes the negative.

Motl in America, by Sholem-Aleichem, translated from the Yiddish by Nadia Déhan-Rotschild and Evelyne Grumberg, Editions de l’Antilope, 224p, 21 €.

In Russia, Motl’s brother’s schemes all failed; in America the central characters, surmounting setbacks, are able to purchase a candy stand, and then, with the earnings from that, to purchase a full-blown candy store, a place that was the beating heart of almost every block in early twentieth century New York. We are meant to laugh at family friend Pinye’s constant praise of America, of Columbus, of Washington and Lincoln. But at heart, Sholem Aleichem feels it as well. 

Aleichem, if he wasn’t an alrightnik, a figure of mockery in Yiddish books and films, was a booster, both of the country and of the Jewish undertaking here. The characters occasionally fall, but they always get up. There is always something good awaiting them around the bend. As Pinni says: “Sure I feel good when I remind myself I’m in America, not in pogrom-land.”

There’s a price, though. While walking the streets of the Lower East Side, Motl and Mendl run into Big Motl, another immigrant they’d last seen on the other side. But he’s no longer Motl; he’s Max. Mendel, he decrees, is henceforth Mike; and Motl the Cantor’s Son will now be Max as well. Just like that the old identity is shed. My grandpa Leib lived the last fifty-six years of his life as Louis. Small price to pay, in the end.

We don’t know how Sholem Aleichem would have finished the Motl stories. But we know what happened to the community of which he was briefly a part. Soon the mother tongue, interspersed with English would become a secondary means of communication. The children of Motl – I mean Max – would hardly speak it at all. And Max’s grandchildren would view it as a piece of exotica. They would leave the slums of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx and move to the suburbs. And the gentle optimism of Sholem Aleichem would be replaced with the astringent voices of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud.

Mitchel Abidor


1 This review was solely published in our French edition of K. in light of the new French translation of Motl in America that was published in March 2022: https://k-larevue.com/motl-en-amerique/
2 Yiddish expression meaning “the golden land” and by extension “the land of milk and honey” or “the Promised Land”, i.e. the United States.

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