David Levinsky is a Hasidic Jew living a strict Torah-filled life in a Russian village. He comes from a family of poverty, and one that is stringent in Torah study. He is unhappy in his situation, and eventually sails to America, disembarking in New York City.
From the minute he finds himself standing on American soil, Levinsky’s journey begins, taking him into the heart of socialization and cultural displacement, a displacement he avidly tries to overcome. Assimilation and secularism are part of his learning experiences.
He is a fast learner, as far as trying to fit into society’s demands. He is insightful as far as his exterior environment, and realizes that in order to succeed he must learn to speak English, not act as if he is a greenhorn, dress as if he is successful, and coordinate his mannerisms to an ideal that will let him succeed. He has programmed himself to not only fit in, but also to a mode of obtaining financial stability. All this, he manages to eventually accomplish, within the realm of his goals of being a proper, shrewd and prosperous businessman.
The streets of New York City are depicted with amazing clarity. Cahan knows from where those streets lead, as he, himself was a Jewish immigrant, arriving in Philadelphia in 1882, and then quickly traveling to New York City. He eventually worked his way up, through his social learnings, and eventually founded the Jewish Daily Forward.
His story could almost be Levinsky’s story. The learnings and social stigmas that Levinsky had to overcome in order to succeed in business, are portrayed with brutal clarity within the novel. I am sure Cahan’s own immigrant and assimilation experiences fill many of the pages.
The latter part of the 19th century is detailed in every aspect. I was amazed at the incredible details that exhaled from the pages. From there, through the early 20th century, the reader is taken back in time to every conceivable issue, from religion to education, sex to romantic, social to assimilation, business to materialism, and so much more. Each facet of society and its doings are examined, especially those involving the lower east side of New York City.
Levinsky’s desire for success and desire to become rich are documented through all of his dealings. From business banking to storefronts, cloak making and competititors, and eventual warehouses, each facet of his business dealings incorporate his very desire to build an empire, and build it he does.
Within those structures, he also involves himself with women, and the women that he finds most attractive are ones that he can not have. His wealth and empire can not buy him love. His sense of home and family is lacking. Levinsky rose in stature and success, yet his reputation and the respect he gained did not foster a sense of family or belonging within his environment. He gained financial success beyond his wildest dreams, only to fail in the romance department.
I read The Rise of David Levinsky always mindful of when it was written, always mindful of the language, grammar, and usage of slang, Yiddish and linguistics of the time period. I felt that to be extremely important in order to gain a sense of time and socialization.
Cahan has given this reader a sense of the late 19th century-early twentieth century New York City. My senses were filled with the streets of New York, the homes of New York, the business wheelings and dealings of New York. They were filled with the experience of immigrant life in all of its ugliness, hardships, demeaning attitudes, strivings to survive and so much more. I applaud Abraham Cahan for his accomplishment.