Within the literature of any culture, it is not unusual for there to be differing opinions about the same topic or experience, even among those who possess first hand knowledge of these topics and experiences.
This dissent can be seen in the classic works of Jewish American Literature, and nowhere else is a marked disagreement more prevalent than when discussing the mindset and works of Mary Antin, who believed that America is the land of opportunity for those who work hard and persevere, and Anzia Yeziereska, whose writings depicted the struggle for Jewish immigrants to find acceptance and opportunity in America, only to be disappointed most of the time, earning her the moniker “Cinderella of the Sweatshops” (Chametzky, et al, 191).
In this essay, Mary Antin’s short story “The Lie” will be examined, and countered with what Yeziereska’s criticism of the story would likely be. The end result will be a fuller understanding of both of these individuals as well as their pivotal roles in Jewish American literature. Synopsis of Antin’s “The Lie”
Upon first taking a look at Mary Antin’s “The Lie”, it has every outward appearance of a classic American success story- in it, a young Jewish boy who has immigrated to America along with his family finds himself positively influenced and enriched by his encounter with a female American teacher who takes the initiative to give the boy the education that he needs to have a stake in the American dream (Chametzky, et al, 233). “The Lie” contains all of the elements of a tale of self discovery and growth.
Below the surface, however, as the title of “The Lie” indicates, there is something inauthentic about the action that takes place in the story, and that shortcoming is where Yeziereksa would likely find grist for criticism and disagreement. Antin’s Flaw Becomes Yeziereska’s Argument For all of the promise and inspiration that “The Lie” may provide at first glance, lurking just beneath the surface is, at the risk of stating the obvious, a lie that while somewhat justified, provides fuel for Yeziereska’s theory that America is not equal for all.
The lie that gives the story the same name, is that the father of the boy in the story lies about the age of the boy in order to provide him with additional years of American schooling, which gives the boy an advantage for the better, but also shows that dishonesty can advance the American Dream, but at the same time goes against all that America represents.
Furthermore, this lie can logically be used to make the argument in favor of Yeziereksa’s belief that America has traditionally mistreated Jews, and that in order for a Jew to receive equal opportunity in the United States, they must betray who they are and deny the very nature of their being. In other words, by lying to gain an education for his son, the father in “The Lie” has in some respects sold his value system, and indirectly that of his son, for some sort of gain.
Taking Yezerieska’s mindset a step further, evidence of her beliefs which lie in opposition to Antin’s can be seen in Yezerieska’s classic work “Children of Loneliness”, which depicts the culture clash between the Jewish American cultures, or more specifically, the newer educated generation in conflict with the older, uneducated generation (Chametzky, et al). Looking into the deeper meaning of “Children of Loneliness”, the common denominator between the generations is the search for acceptance in an adopted land and the possibility that there may not truly be justice and opportunity for all.
Commonality Between Antin and Yezierska Worthy of note is a commonality between Antin and Yeziereska in that their works, while on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, all go against the tradition of Jewish literature; for example, Antin’s dialogue is depicted entirely in the adopted tongue of English, and Yeziereska uses only a small sampling of Yiddish in the same (Chametzky, et al, 121). Summary
In this essay, through the works and philosophies of two authors, commentary and tradition of an entire people has been able to be examined and discussed. Once again looking for higher meaning in Jewish American literature, in closing, perhaps the best takeaway from this research is that even within a culture, traditions and people change. What remains constant is the yearning of the human spirit to advance and the struggles therein.
Chametzky, J. ,et al. Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000.