Commentary Magazine


A Walker in the City, by Alfred Kazin

Brownsville Idyll
A Walker in the City.
by Alfred Kazin.
Harcourt, Brace. 176 pp. $3.00.

 

Alfred Kazin writes about the Brownsville of his childhood and youth, about the “urìme Yidn,” the poor immigrant Jews and their families who led there their warm, shabby, picturesque, humble, and devoted lives; about the sights, sounds, smells, and general atmosphere of Brownsville homes and streets; about the impact on a sensitive Jewish child growing up there of the claims of the big city beyond and of America as a whole beyond that. The book is organized as a series of sketches, each one built on a walk through certain streets; the autobiography is not projected in a straight line but emerges indirectly as bound up with the memories induced by those walks; and underlying everything is a fine savoring of physical sensations belonging to this kind of life and this environment.

The physical sensations are linked at each point to the boy’s developing emotions and attitudes, and perhaps the best quality of a book which calls for praise on several grounds is the almost lyrical way in which this linking of sensation to attitude is made persuasive to the reader. The narrator moves easily from memory to direct evocation of what is remembered, from the streets of Brownsville as they are now to what they were and what they meant for him as a child, and the book is thus at once an evocation of childhood, an essay in autobiography, and a topographical study. Its relish of sensation projects the very quality of living in that way at that time in that atmosphere, and the underlying theme of the development of a boy’s sensitivity—of his responses to his neighborhood, to his city, to his country, as well as to his Jewishness and his Jewish past—enriches the narrative so that it becomes more than a sociological picture and more than a study in mood: it becomes a contribution both to Americana and to Judaica.

This is in large part a picture of poverty, of life in shabby Brownsville as opposed to the more spacious living of the “allrightniks” in more favored districts. But it is poverty with a difference—poverty, one might say, Jewish American style, different from poverty Italian American style and even more different from any European variety. There is never any suggestion of hunger—indeed, the most extraordinary variety of comestibles floats through the book: in addition to the traditional Jewish Friday night dishes, we get a remarkable medley of nasherei. “At home we nibbled all day long as a matter of course. On the block we gorged ourselves continually on ‘Nessels,’ Hersheys, gumdrops, polly seeds, nuts, chocolate-covered cherries, charlotte russe, and ice cream.” The narrator and his friends seem always to have been eating and drinking, eskimo pies, jelly apples, hot peas, miscellaneous eatables bought from men with carts, Jewish, Italian, Syrian, or unidentified American. (The Jewish children I remember from my own childhood, gorged though they often were at home, never had the pocket money for such extra-curricular activities.) Jewish parents vied with each other in filling up their children: that was one thing America could provide: food was good and a lot of food was better, and we see the parents happily ladling the food into their offspring.

Jewish American poverty: no sooner have I described it as different from any European variety than I am reminded of similar scenes in Whitechapel or even in the districts of Edinburgh where the poorer members of the Edinburgh Jewish community lived. I remember the mixture of shabbiness and profusion, the continuous cry of mothers to their children: “Ess, mein kind, ess!” as though to be stuffed was to be guaranteed survival in the new Western world. British Jews too looked back to der heim in Poland or Russia with a mixture of nostalgia and horror, and in the shabby streets of London’s East End, of Manchester, of the Gorbals in Glasgow, or St. Leonard’s in Edinburgh, Jewish children faced the same mixture of cosiness and yearning, of warmth and desperation, and felt, too, the impact on their minds and emotions of the great world of “beyond” as well as of the claims of their own traditions. And if their discovery of their present country took place side by side with their discovery of their past, their response was likely to be similar to that which Mr. Kazin records so sensitively here.

One cannot help being struck with the failure of formal education—both Jewish and American—that emerges in this story. Whatever Mr. Kazin learned at school, it seems clear that it was educationally insignificant and nothing to what he taught himself, while the melamed who taught him the minimum amount of Hebrew to enable him to get by on his Bar Mitzvah was apparently contemptuous of the possibility of giving any real understanding of Jewish history and religion to an Americanborn child. The result of this is a curious emptiness where we might have looked for something dominating and central. There is American Yiddish chatter and “folkways,” but no Hebrew culture and no contact whatever with a living religious tradition. This makes the author excessively vulnerable to his own religious discoveries, and is perhaps responsible for the one piece of sentimentality in an otherwise restrained book—the apostrophe to Jesus, following the account of his discovery of the New Testament. It should be added that he had to discover the Old Testament and the Jewish prayer book for himself too.

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Though there are aspects of this story that are immediately recognizable to anyone with experience of parallel Jewish communities in other parts of the world, one must not underestimate the American—or even the purely Brownsville and New York—aspects of this book. The sea-change undergone by Jewish life when it rooted itself in America is made abundantly clear in these pages. It is all here, the street life, richly combining the Jewish and the American; the school, with its stern ideal of antiseptic success set over against the wamer Jewish concept; the Negro quarter slowly encroaching on the Jewish and provoking puzzled and casual resentment; the Italians, and all the other varieties of Gentiles; and behind all—the great beyond of New York, of America, always there, always challenging, but only slowly developing into a reality.

These memories are presided over—as, for some reason, memories of childhood almost always are—by summer, and some of the most effective paragraphs are those in the final section describing life in the hot summer streets. Here again the recollection of physical sensation is the clue to the success of Mr. Kazin’s writing.

An autobiography, an evocation, an apologia, an ode to America, a sociological study, the case history of an American Jewish childhood—Mr. Kazin’s book is all these things. It is a moving and impressive record, and may well stand as a classic of its kind.

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