I bought the book, The Rise of David Levinsky, for 25 cents from a used book dealer. David Levinsky is an unknown to me, but the back-cover promised a powerful, prophetic story of Jewish-American life in turn-of-the-century New York. The book was written by Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), a political radical, union organizer, and founder of the influential Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan offers a candid view of David Levinsky, who was born in Russia and lived with his mother in a deep dank basement with three other families. Levinsky’s teen years found him studying the Talmud daily, and avoiding confrontations with the local boys who taunted the Jews. However, one evening he was captured and beat. After his mother discovered the bumps and bruises, she rushed out to reckon with the cruel boys, but was beat to death. A merciful distant friend then scrounged up the boat money it took to send Levinsky to America.
Levinsky spent twenty years working his way from desperate poverty to material success in the garment industry. He learned the English language and mannerisms of the 19th century business world. He read. He attended plays. This new found knowledge, juxtaposed with the sheer will-power to toil sixteen hour days earned him millions of dollars and allowed him to eventually provide work for many fellow Russian Jews all the while dodging the young Labor Unions coming into existence.
Now a millionaire, Levinsky has time to think of marriage, “I had no creed. I knew of no ideal. The only thing I believed in was the cold, drab theory of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. This could not satisfy a heart that was hungry for enthusiasm and affection, so dreams of family life became my religion. Self-sacrificing devotion to one’s family was the only kind of altruism and idealism I did not flout.” However, he called off the wedding to the woman he was to marry.
As the reader, I wonder if Levinsky feared the experience of matrimony and family would pale before the strong impressions already imprinted on the core of his being. At the beginning of the book, when explaining the day the ship from Russia to America arrived at Sandy Hook and his eyes fell on the landscape of America, his new home, he wrote, “I am at a loss to convey the peculiar state of mind that the experience created in me…the immigrant never forgets his entry into a country which is, to him, a new world in the profoundest sense of the term and in which he expects to pass the rest of his life.”