The Private Goes Public: Gender and Cultural Spaces

in Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto

Nicole Soost

In his review of Cahan's story collection The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto, William Dean Howells wrote "No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian's stories of Yiddish life, which are so entirely of our time and place, and so foreign to our race and civilisation." Not only the stories in this collection, as Howells noted, where symptomatic for the general shifts in American culture at the turn into the twentieth century but also Cahan's novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, which was published two years earlier in 1896.

Though Cahan's text deals also with the acculturation processes of Jewish immigrants it also and perhaps more interestingly focuses at the cultural shift at the turn of the century namely the increasing publicity which altered daily life. The constitution and reconstitution of public and private spaces is intricately connected to these transformations.


The subtitle A Tale of the New York Ghetto already specifies not only New York but its Lower East Side as cultural space of the action which is further supported by comments of the narrator, as "[…] the metropolitan ghetto in which our story lies" (2).

The cultural space of the Lower East Side is referred to by the streetname 'Suffolk Street' and then described in detail:

He had to pick his way through dense swarms of bedraggled half-naked humanity; past garbage barrels rearing their overflowing contents in sickening piles, and lining the streets in malicious suggestions of rows of trees; underneath tiers and tiers of fire escapes, barricaded and festooned with mattresses, pillows, and featherbeds not yet gathered in for the night. The pent-in sultry atmosphere was laden with nausea and pierced with a discordant and, as it were plaintive buzz. (13)

On the one hand the area is a slum that is described as filthy, crowded and noisy. On the other hand it is marked by connotations of flowing, movement and change thus stressing its transformative potential. By the imagery of moving water the text uses, both the notion of change and the impression of constant human movement are further emphasized.

Suffolk Street is in the very thick of the battle for breath. For it lies in the heart of that part of the East Side which has within the last two or three decades become the Ghetto of the American metropolis, and, indeed, the metropolis ao the Ghettos of the world. It is one of the most densely populated spots on the face of the earth - a seething human sea fed by streams, streamlets, and rills of immigration flowing from all the Yiddish-speaking centers of Europe.(13)

These passages constitute the Lower East Side as a distinctive cultural space in New York not only characterized by poverty, crowdedness and noise but also as a space of diversity that is constantly transforming itself. Its cultural transformations are shown most clearly on the level of plot in the gender relations and the differences between private and public spaces. Judith Butler has stressed the need for cultural legible identities. "Indeed to understand identity as a practice, and as a signifying practice is to understand culturally intelligible subjects as the resulting effects of a rulebound discourse that inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane acts of linguistic life." In my argument I will relate Butler's concept of (gendered) identity as performative to the spatial models of Roland Barthes and Edward Soja. Barthes points out that "[t]he city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it." He thus emphasizes that the space of the city is constituted and transformed by discursive rules. Edward Soja elaborates the notion of space as a discursive formation and its relation to the social (which always includes an intricate nexus of differences such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class) even further. He suggests

If spatiality is both outcome/embodiment and medium/presupposition of social relations and social structure, their material reference, then social life must be seen as both space-forming and space contingent, producer and product of spatiality. This two-way relationship defines - or perhaps redefines - a socio-spatial dialectic which is simultaneously part of a spatio-temporal dialectic, a tense and contradiction filled interplay between the social production of geography and history.

Drawing on these ideas I will therefore understand spaces in a literary text as historically specific elements of discourse that are constructed and referentialized by linguistic signs as well as semiotically and semantically marked in terms of gender, ethnicity, and class. These spaces can be distinguished in private and public ones and are reconstituted by transgression of either one of the characters or the narrator.

The protagonist of Cahan's text, Jake, has immigrated from Eastern Europe to the U.S. three years prior to the beginning of the story. He was still named Yekl then. During the process of his acculturation he has not only changed his name and tried to become as 'American' as possible but he has also conveniently forgotten to tell his new aquaintances in New York that he is already married and has a wife and a son in Russia. Instead he is about to begin a relationship with Mamie a woman who is more americanized than he is. But after his father has died Jake feels obliged to bring his family over to America. When his wife Gitl and his son arrive the 'new' Jake has become as alien to his orthodox wife as she has to him. The emotional and cultural distance between both grows so that they ultimately divorce. The text ends with the prospective marriage of Jake and Mamie, while his ex-wife Gitl will probably marry the learned immigrant Bernstein.

While the narrative voice of the text focuses mainly on Jake and his conflict of cultural identity, I will consider in my reading primarily the two female characters Mamie and Gitl as the nexus of public and private spaces, culture and gender is most interesting and complex in these two contrasting figures.

The spaces that are most prominent in the text are the dancing academy, Jake and Gitl's flat and a car of the Elevated train. Early in the novel Jake and some of his colleagues visit a dancing academy in their spare time. The dancing schools that were established around the turn-of-the-century especially around the Bowery varied significantly in terms of quality and morals. While a lot of them were respectable some of them led immigrant girls into prostitution. But a hint of ambivalence clung even to the respectable ones as a mixed dancing school was in itself a transgression in Yiddish culture.

The dancing academy in Cahan's text, which Jake attends regularly is at first constituted by description and contrasted to the narrow overcrowded street "Presently he [Jake] found himself on the threshold and in the overpowering air of a spacious oblong chamber, […]" (15) The description already shows it as undefined, it is neither the public space of the street nor a private space:

The room was, judging by its untidy, once-whitewashed walls and the uncouth wooden pillars supporting its bare ceiling, more accustomed to the whir of sewing machines than to the noises which filled it at the present moment. It took up the whole of the first floor of a five-story house built for large sweatshops, and until recently it had served its original purpose as faithfully as the four upper flours, which were still the daily scenes of feverish industry. At the further end of the room there was now a marble soda fountain in charge of an unkempt boy. (15)

The dancing school is also a space in which men and women can meet casually. Two of the women seem to be interested in Jake namely Fanny and Mamie. In the text Mamie is first introduced in the ambivalent space of the dancing school. In contrast to Fanny, a working woman, and Gitl, Jake's wife, Mamie is defined from the beginning as desiring female character and therefore she is potentially immoral and dangerous. Her rather ambivalent description by the narrative voice also shows her as desirable yet likely to cause trouble "[…] a girl with a superabundance of pitch-black sidebangs and with a pert, ill-natured, pretty face […] and her shrewd deep dark eyes gleamed out of a warm gipsy complexion" (19). She is shown in a way in this scene that has always a hint of a potential transgression especially in the way she behaves with the men and more particularly with Jake

[…] as she [Mamie] shared his [Jake's] view that a square or fancy dance was as flimsy an affair as a stick of candy […] They spun along with all-forgetful gusto; every little while he lifted her on his powerful arm and have her a 'mill,' he yelping and she squeaking for sheer ecstasy. (20)

The dancing scenes show also that in the semi-public space of the dancing academy gender relations have to be negotiated as they are as undefined as the space that could provide the rules.

Fanny was not blind to the maneuver, but her exultation was all the greater for it, and she participated in the ensuing conversation with exuberant geniality. By-and-by they were joined by Jake. "Vell, vill you treat, Jake?" said Mamie. "Vot you vant, a kish?" he replied, putting his offer in action as well as in language. Mamie slapped his arm. "May the angel of death kiss you!" said her lips in Yiddish. "Try again!" her glowing face overruled them in a dialect of its own. Fanny laughed. (23)

The culturally defined rules of conduct between men and women are suspended in the semi-public space of the dancing school. While the language constantly changes between Yiddish and English the facial expressions are even more telling as they express a pleasure neither American nor Yiddish rules of conduct consider appropriate. Significantly it is again Mamie who comes closest to breaking the rules yet doesn't do so because she separates verbal and facial expression. In the switching between Yiddish and American language and cultural codes a mixed form is created. The dancing academy becomes what Michel Foucault calls a heterotopia, a space between Utopia and reality that exists materially but seems to contain various possibilities. "The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible." For Foucault heterotopias in cultural discourse are spaces of imaginative possibilities. Therefore the dancing academy is a heterotopic space as it blends the public and the private and temporarily suspends the rules of behaviour between men and women and thereby makes a 'rehearsal' of new gender roles possible.

In contrast to the dancing academy the space of Jake and Gitl's tenement flat is supposed to be unambiguously private. Again the space is first constituted in a descriptive passage.

Yosselé was sound asleep in the lodgers' double bed, in the smallest of the three tiny rooms which the family rented on the second floor of one of a row of brand-new tenement houses. Gitl was by herself in the little front room which served the quadruple purpose of kitchen, dining room, sitting room, and parlor. (39)

But due to the cramped conditions and the tenants who live there the flat is not really a completely private space. Jake's wife Gitl is a traditional orthodox woman which is shown in the text by her dress when she first meets her husband again at her arrival in New York when she is described from Jake's point of view, "She was slovenly dressed in a brown jacket and skirt of grotesque cut, and her hair was concealed under a voluminous wig of pitch-black hue.[…] She was naturally dark of complexion […] to lend her resemblance to a squaw" (34). After a few weeks in New York her dress still marks her as a newcomer and as a traditional wife "She wore a skirt and a loose jacket of white Russian calico, decorated with huge gay figures, and her dark hair was only half covered by a bandana of red and yellow" (39). In order to try out a new role of an 'Americanized' woman by putting on the presents her husband has given her, a hat and a corsett, she needs complete privacy. In her living conditions this is a luxury that has to be produced. "All at once her [Gitl's] face heightened up with temptation. She went to fasten the hallway door of the kitchen on its latch, and then regaining the bedroom shut herself in" (40). Gitl's imagination of participating in the new culture marks the beginning of her transformation and can only occur if she transgresses the rules of her old culture first.

Walking on tiptoe, as though about to commit a crime, she crossed over to the looking glass. Then she paused, her eyes on the door, to listen for possible footsteps. Hearing none she faced the glasse. 'Quite a panenke' she thought to herself, all aglow with excitement, a smile at once shamefaced and beatific, melting her features. She turned to the right, then to the left, to view herself in profile as she had seen Mrs. Kavarsky do,[…] She viewed herself again and again, and was in a flutter both of ecstasy and alarm, when there came a timid rap at the door. Trembling all over, she scampered on tiptoe back into the bedroom[…] (40, Cahan's emphasis)

The imagery of this scene presents cultural transgression and the enactment of a new identity as a sensuous experience. The theatricality of the quoted passage also emphasizes not only that identities are constructed but it also shows that a new role needs to be rehearsed. Therefore a transformation can only be achieved in public as it needs the confirmation from an audience.

A dinner with the tenants shows again the growing conflict between husband and wife which is enforced by a visit from Mamie who is constructed as an antagonistic character to Gitl. Mamies entrance is a parallel scene to Gitl before the mirror, but Mamie's mirror is her audience where she exhibits and performs her feminity according to all rules of American culture

The door flew open, and in came Mamie, preceded by a cloud of cologne odors. She was apparently dressed for some occasion of state, for she was powdered and straight-laced and resplendent in a waist of blazing red, gaudily trimmed, and with puff sleeves, each wider than the vast expanse of white straw, surmounted with a whole forest of ostrich feathers, which adorned her head. One of her gloved hands held the huge hoop-shaped yellowish handle of a blue parasol. 'Good evenin', Jake!' she said, with ostentatious vivacity. (48f.)

In this passage the sensuous aspect of the performance of cultural identity is stressed once more by the description of smell and of colors. In these highly theatrical scenes the two antagonistic female characters and the corresponding cultural definitions of femininity are contrasted. Mamie's visit is also a transgression as she enters into the private space of the family. Again the fact that private space is only semi-private is emphasized. After a neighbor helps Gitl to 'Americanize' her looks the semi-private space of the flat becomes a melodramatic stage for the final argument of husband and wife watched by the audience of neighbor and son. The flat finally is transformed into a stage on which the traditional family is dissolved. Again an audience is needed in order to witness the transformation.

In the final scene of the novel Jake and Mamie are in a car of the Elevated train on their way to the town hall in order to get married. The New York El had opened in 1868 and since a fare reduction in 1886 was open to everybody. It shows the transformation of New York through technological changes similarly to the building of bridges and skyscrapers and later the building of the subway. The car of the El as a subway car or a train car is a closed space that makes it possible to move through public spaces that are socially, culturally, and ethnically different without being part of them. It can also take on the function of a microcosm or serve as a site for a rite de passage. In Cahan’s text the train ride marks the passage into a new cultural space. Acculturation is irreversible even if this means, as the text seems to imply, a loss of identity.

Each time the car came to a halt he wished the pause could be prolonged indefinitely; and when it resumed its progress, the violent lurch it gave was accompanied by a corresponding sensation in his heart. (89)

By being constantly in motion the car also becomes a symbol for cultural spaces that are constantly in the process of transformation.

The combination of cultural and technological changes, that is emphasized in the final part of Cahan's text leads to a redefinition of gender relations and to a shift of the differentiation of private and public spaces. While the dancing academy is already a heterotopic space, private and public spaces are transformed. Even though the street remains a public space the very definition of public changes whereas private spaces become semi-public.

By displaying contrasting ideas of femininity in the opposing characters Mamie and Gitl as well as gender relations in public and private spaces the text shows how cultural spaces (male/female and public/private) are reconstituted through transgression just as the cultural space of the Lower East Side is constantly changing itself.

The Text shows in a microcosm what characterizes the culture at large namely the increasing theatricality. Philip Fisher argues that American culture at the turn into the twentieth century needs a "space of performance" as it turns into a "culture of spectacle." He points out that due to an increasing medialization as well as to social and technological changes private spaces were collapsing into publicity while a growing audience was hungrily demanding that very publicity as performance "We might describe the years between 1890 and 1910 as a series of experiments in the modeling of a highly visible structure of identity under the new circumstances of conspicuous performance." While I agree with Fisher that American culture in this period is becoming more and more theatrical I would argue that the most important point is the interlocking of concepts of private/public spaces, culture and gender as these are inseparable from each other. In other words when the private goes public concepts of gender and culture do so as well and change in the very process.



Works Cited




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Cahan, Abraham. Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. (1896) New York: Dover, 1970.

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Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces." Transl. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16 (1986): 22-27.

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl; Life and Labour in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

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Lacan, Jacques. Schriften I. Ed. and transl. Norbert Haas and Hans-Joachim Metzger. Weinheim: Quadriga, 1973.

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Weinberg, Sydney Stahl. The World of Our Mothers: The Lives of Jewish Immigrant Women. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.