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Coming to America

These 6 Jewish immigrant coming-of-age stories explore puberty, a time when literally no one speaks their language.

tenements

Photo: Tenements. Courtesy of Naomi / Flickr

Feeling like an outsider, distrusting your parent’s rules, and confusion about identity are all a part of growing up. Now imagine doing it in a foreign country.

In the case of the following young Jewish immigrants, every rite of passage is complicated by an inevitable clash of cultures. Their tales are wrought with old vs. new country tension, generational misunderstanding, and other social woes, but there’s one thing every culture can agree on: Growing up is hard.

And it’s what makes these coming-of-age immigrant stories so engaging.


 

bread giversBread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska

Sara Smolinksy is a Jewish-American girl dominated by her Orthodox father, a first-generation Polish immigrant. When her father forces her three older sisters to marry unhappily for financial stability, Sara’s had enough. So she heads to an American, largely Christian college, where newfound ideals threaten the loss of her identity.

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call it sleepCall It Sleep, by Henry Roth

Call It Sleep follows young David Schearl as he grows up in a Jewish immigrant ghetto in New York City during the early 20th century. Cultures clash as David distances himself from his violent father and becomes obsessed with an older Catholic boy.

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amazing adventures of kavalier and clayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Thrown together by circumstance, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sammy ‘Clay’ try to make their way in New York’s artistic world. Joe, a 19-year-old recent refugee, spends his time illustrating comics written by Sammy and attempting to get his family away from Jewish persecution in Prague. This Pulitzer prize-winning tale simultaneously manages to explore Jewish mysticism and the golden age of comics.

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the childrenThe Children, by Howard Fast

Howard Fast’s dark tale of children in a New York slum is told from the point of view of Ishky, a young Jewish boy. Fast’s story was influenced by Roth’s Call It Sleep and even uses some of the same Jewish immigrant street dialect. The children in the story are all the children of immigrants, but the book also showcases the devastating effects of poverty on the young.

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other peoples livesOther People’s Lives, by Johanna Kaplan

Other People’s Lives centers on the children and grandchildren of immigrants, mostly Jewish, living in urban America. They are people struggling with the past, mental illness, loss, family legacies, and all variety of expectation in the mid-20th century; they are transplanted strangers entering, and often imposing upon, the personal lives of others.

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home in the morningHome in the Morning, by Mary Glickman

Flashing back and forth between main character Jackson Sassaport’s youth and his later life as a successful lawyer, Mary Glickman explores the clash of Jewish culture and Southern mores. A fascinating departure from the urban immigrant narrative, Glickman’s story explores the Jewish immigrant experience in the South during the explosive racial tension of the Civil Rights Era.

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