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Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side
The current paper analyses an autobiographical novel “Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side” written by Rose Cohen. Rose Cohen was born in Russia and at the age of 12 she had to immigrate to America. Both in Russia and America she and her family had to go through many hardships. This is basically the main theme of the book.
However, at the closer look the book is about much more than just the personal life experience of the author. Within the framework of the current paper, it will be claimed that Rose Cohen addressed in her novel the problems which were in particular urgent in the beginning of the twentieth century but which did not lose their actuality up to the present days. Hence is the intransient importance of Rose Cohen’s book.
The main focus of Cohen’s book is placed on the life of immigrants, the life which the author experienced firsthand and knew very well. This is why her description of it is so vivid, pithy and succinct. It is also profoundly truthful and honest. Besides, Rose Cohen started writing the novel already as a very young girl. This gave it the sense of immediacy and profundity which autobiographies can rarely claim (Dublin).
Already at a very young age, Rose was exposed to hard physical labor and discrimination. The reason why she had to come to America beside from the persecutions the Jewish family was exposed to in Russia, Rose’s father, a immigrant from Russia himself, invited them. Residing in America in a state of utter poverty and destitution, he needed some help – both at home and financially. He knew that his sister and daughter were not well off in Russia and he in a sense naively hoped that having reunited, the family would be better in America. This conviction of Rose’s father was not entirely groundless since there was work available for the two women and, meager as their salaries were, they could make a living. But initially as well as subsequently, as the ending of the novel proves, happiness was lacking in this life. As the book suggests, it would take some time for Rose and her relatives to adapt to the new realities of their life in America – but all was in vain. They would remain at the margins of the American society. Having lost their Russia Jewish roots, Rose and her family did not fully fit in with the American way of doing things.
The main heroine of the book is presented as a keen and eager observer. She is interested in many different things ranging from politics to love. At first, she does all the housework – she washes clothes, cooks dinners, scrubs the floor, runs different errands. It is hard and after two months of this work, she makes a decision to go to work at a shop specializing in tenement stitching.
Her father is also employed in this very line of business but the salaries given to women and men are not equal – men receive more money for doing the same job than women do. This is the reference to sexism. However, the American society is formed so that the employers look for cheap labor – this is why, on the upside, women and children are more likely to obtain a job because they will work for lower pay.
Working conditions are difficult but there are no organizations defending the rights of the workers. However, they are slowly being formed. Thus, Rose gets an opportunity to join an labor union whose purpose is to improve the conditions of women working at the factory’s lives. However, the union ultimately fails to achieve its objectives and is shortly dissolved. Fortunately, there are no serious implications for Rose’s participation in it.
The worst time in Rose’s life is the period of depression when she and her father are dismissed from work. At that time, they do not have any money and, as a result, they are exposed to hunger. The threat that they will be evicted hangs over them. Only the interference of a charity helps them keep afloat. Despite this, initially Rose and her family are unwilling to receive the support from the charity – this fact shows the pride of the newly immigrated people but also their honesty and unsophistication.
Rose provides many observations about the way immigrants are adapting to life in America. For example, having arrived in the country, she can hardly recognize her father – so much has he changed in the course of his relatively brief stay in America. He has shaved off his beard and cut his hair. This change I her father was is astonishing to her at first.
Yet, the changes like these, resulting in the final drifting away from the traditional Jewish culture ware inevitable. Rose herself is not immune to them. Already after a year of life in America, she encourages her grandmother not to wear a kerchief which back in Russia every married woman had to wear. As Tom Dublin’s review of the book acknowledges, Rose Cohen goes “from being a resisting traditionalist to an enthusiastic Americanizer in the course of her first year in the United States” (Dublin).
As Rose becomes of age, she gets engaged to Israel, a young man working as a grocer. Despite the engagement, Rose does not feel real love in her heart. The whole episode of engagement is presented as a series of conflicting events in Rose’s life when the inner struggle between two different personalities in the girl is taking place. On the one hand, Rose agrees to engagement because she feels obliged to obey commands of her parents, and she is well aware that her parents want to see her married off. But, on the other hand, Rose’s character has evolved since the moment she first arrived in America. She is not a timid, shy young Jewish girl anymore. On the contrary, now she is an American in the proper sense of the word. This is why she breaks the engagement exercising her freedom of choice and judgment. As Tom Dublin notices, “In the failed engagement we see the triumph of new-world gender expectations over those of the old country” (Dublin).
Nevertheless, there is a yearning in Rose to break free of her family and an intervention of Nurse Lillian Wald comes in handy. Rose is admitted in a hospital so that she can improve her failing health. It is in the hospital that she meets the ‘real’ Americans who live outside the Russian Jewish community. As she comes home from the hospital, she is determined to drastically change her life. In order to do so, she starts to seriously learn English.
Rose’s vision of America is largely shaped by the Lower East Side of New York – this district of the largest American city opens up a new, an entirely unknown world for Rose Cohen. As soon as she discovers that New York is not reduced to a small Russian Jewish village where she lives, the desire to live in a ‘real’ American way is dramatically increased.
However, as the ending of the novel implies, Rose Cohen having distanced herself away from the Russian Jewish community, did not become a full-fledged American. Rather, she found herself on the edge of the American society with uncertain goals and bleak perspectives in the future. She did not want to marry but her social standing was not fixed – she was still poor, helpless and pitted against the cruel, unjust and indifferent world at large. Perhaps, this is why the novel finishes with the portrayals of Rose’s relatives. She herself disappears from the narrative as somebody insignificant and unimportant, as somebody who does not matter. Thus, the main heroine of the novel who dominated its pages attempts to erase herself from the pages of history.
This ending poses a question about Rose Cohen’s subsequent life. Sadly, but during her short life Rose Cohen did not become a famous writer she definitely could have been. Her autobiographical novel published in 1918 was the only significant work she wrote. It is true that in the early 1920s, she tried to write short stories but it was writing about herself that she succeeded in best.
In 1925 at the age of 45 Rose Cohen died or she might have committed suicide – the truth will never be known. Indeed, the pessimistic notes in her works, including the autobiographical novel discussed here, suggest that she was able to end her life voluntarily. It was true to say that she was deeply dissatisfied with the conditions of her life.
One cannot but think about the social conditions that made Rose Cohen’s and so many other women’s lives miserable. These conditions are amply touched upon in Rose Cohen’s autobiography. They include discrimination, sexism, social inequality, class struggle, and marginalization of the weak and powerless. They also show the ensuing conflicts between the immigrants and Americans – something that has not been resolved up to the present moment. Many negative social interactions between American people have not been entirely erased.
The most serious issues were discrimination and sexism. In the novel the fact that Rose Cohen is a Jewish woman plays an important role in her life. It is because of this that she and her family have to leave Russia. It is because of the sexist beliefs prevalent in the American society that she receives lower salary in comparison with men. It is because of this that she must marry a man she does not love – something she rebels against. Thus, Rose Cohen is not a typical meek woman but a challenger. But her blending into the society is at the expense of her own happiness: it is much easier to silently comply with the rules and the dominant social assumptions but if you rise against them you are marginalized, i.e. you find yourself not fitting any social group. This is precisely what happens to Rose Cohen. In a way, she loses her identity.
At the same time, being a challenger and disruptor of the status quo, Rose Cohen is not a revolutionary in a proper sense of the word. Instead, she is just an unhappy, in a way, a broken woman who having left the Old World does not find herself in the New World. This disparity in Rose Cohen’s character, her rebellious nature, on the one hand, and innate meekness and femininity, on the other, is very prominent.
To sum up, the autobiographical novel it dwells on a number of important social issues as they pertain to an early twentieth century world but many of them remain ever-present even today. The novel at the time of its publishing received positive response from the critics, but Rose Cohen’s literary career did take off. Despite the fact that she had an undeniable literary talent, Rose Cohen passed out of life largely unnoticed. It is only today that her writing is being rediscovered.
- Dublin, Tom. Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side. https://jwa.org/discover/inthepast/readingseries/cohen (Accessed 18th Dec. 2018)
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