Christine Barrera

The Talmud and David Levinsky David Levinsky was eighteen and studying his Talmud in the humble company of Reb Sender when an illiterate woman brought a New Yorker’s letter to be read to her. Here he first recieved the notion and overwhelming desire to go to America, to New York. “The concrete details of that letter gave New York tangible form in my imagination. It haunted me ever after. [It] lured me not merely as a land of milk and honey, but also as one of mystery, of fantastic experiences, of marvelous transformations.” Reb Sender responds to Levinsky’s dream, “But one becomes a Gentile there!” His statement contains the idea of America bringing not so marvelous transformations. Rather, a good and spiritual Jew may lose his devoutness. While in Russia, David Levinsky is a very pious young man. He thinks his friend, Naphtali and his Godlessness is outrageous, though Naphtali, like Reb Sender, says, “How long will you believe in him after you get to America?” Upon David’s arrival in New York, he reads Psalm 104 of the Talmud because this moment reminds him of “the way God took care of man and beast (87).” For his first meal, David buys a piece of bread and prays over it before he eats. Because of these instances, and more, other established Jews and Gentiles alike on the streets call David a “green one.” What he discovers about America on this day is that to be in poverty one is not posessionless. “Anything was to be expected of a country where the poorest devil wore a hat and a starched collar.”

Levinsky begins taking English classes and immerses himself in the language in every moment possible. He hung on his English teachers every word, gesture and every other sort of action that might make him more like an American, even though he hated his teacher, Bender. During one class period, a bit of hostility between David and his teacher are expressed. Even though he praises Bender as his key to this land of fantastic experiences, he feels Bender is knowledgeable in the American culture, but not intelligent in the way that it really matters. “At the bottom of my heart I had a conviction that one who had not studied the Talmud could not be anything but a blockhead (134).” Though David greatly wants to be part of the land of milk and honey, and grasps the English language, he knows that the Talmud and therefore God are what is really important overall in life. At this point, Reb Sender was incorrect when he said that one becomes a Gentile in America because David holds one foot in both worlds. However, perhaps David is managing to be in both worlds because he is not completely in either. He is not as American as he wants to be because he is a novice in the English language. He has not achieved much prosperity nor received a formal secular education. Americanness as Cahan sees it is actually very “Gentile.” The things that David wants to achieve do not have a place in the Judaism he grew up with. In fact, as he moves closer to his America dream, he loses touch with his religion and Talmudist background. Levinsky soon can speak, write, and spell in English very well. This is because he devotes his free time to secular learning. Between long work hours, hanging out at the cloak-makers café and learning academics, there is no time to study the Talmud.

Levinsky gains a small amount of money intended for his studies, but soon he realizes that it feels so good to be prosperous. He neglects his secular and religious education completely. In the end, money is the key to finding the ‘land of milk and honey’ for Levinsky. Reb Sender proves to be correct in his claim of Americans as Gentiles. Americanness appears to be slightly shameful if it consists of losing ones core of religiosity and identity. Gradually, within a few years, Levinsky recalls, “I scarcely ever visited the synagogue of the Sons of Antomir these days, but on [the anniversary of my mother’s death] I was sure to be there. Forgetful of my atheism… (239).” He has only a memory of his life with God, and he realizes it is not the way in which an American can successfully live their life. So many immigrants like Levinksy were unable to successfully bring their religion to America because it is not the dominant thing in our culture like it was in his life back in Russia. What sustains American life is the economy and thus immigrants do conform in attempt to lead a successful life. However, it could not have solely been New York City which transformed Levinksy into an atheistic monster unless it was in him before. Once he is in the city, the Talmud is not in his hand reminding him how to live a God fearing life.