5: Novella excerpt, Abraham Cahan's "Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto," 1896.

5: Novella excerpt, Abraham Cahan's "Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto," 1896.

In this scene from Yekl, the title character, his name now Americanized to "Jake," visits a dancing academy that occupies the space of a former sweatshop. The room is packed with immigrant Jews of the Lower East Side, still in their work-clothes, learning how to dance and behave with acceptable Yankee manners around their age-mates of the opposite sex. Jake has been recruited by the dancing master to ask if Mamie, one of the prettiest girls there, would deign to give an awkward but well-connected businessman a whirl, as he stands forlorn and neglected in a corner of the room. This dialogue presents the negotiation between Jake and Mamie, in which, in the first line, he offers to waltz with her if she dances with the businessman.

The language here is of particular interest. We learn earlier that "English was the official language of the academy, where it was broken and mispronounced in as many different ways as there were Yiddish dialects represented in that institution" (36). Meanwhile, Mamie's English is a step above, with the narrator telling us that "Like the majority of the girls of the academy, Mamie's English was a much nearer approach to a justification of its name than the gibberish spoken by the men" (40). We see the two kinds of English, and a bit of Yiddish, in this dialogue.

Suggested Activity: Ask your students to read the passage and consider the language presented therein. Ask them to describe the voice of the characters depicted in this scene. What differs between the two characters' language, and indeed the language of the narrator? As them to specific examples of word choices and constructions in the excerpt. Why might Mamie's speech, and that of the rest of the women, hew more closely to "proper" English than that of the men? Do they find Yekl's speech to truly be "gibberish"? What point is Cahan making by using that word, and is it fair?

Also consider Cahan's footnote. (Note that "getzke" does not only mean a "crucifix," or more literally, "a little idol." It can also be used to mean a "spoiled child," and seems to also carry this connotation in this dialogue.) Why does Jake drop in a Yiddish word here? And why would Cahan use words with which his audience was not familiar, meanwhile including glosses for some of these words? What does the presence of the footnote tell them about the intended audience? Ask your students to go through their version of the text. Where else does Cahan include footnotes? What kinds of things does he explain with footnotes, and what does he leave unexplained? 

Even with the footnote, students may find this passage, and the novella as a whole, linguistically challenging at times. Do they find it to be, and what about the text makes it so? Do students think it may have been less or more challenging for readers when it was first published? Ask students to find examples of Cahan's portrayal of immigrant speech patterns in other moments in the book, and to think about how he uses his characters' varying dialects as a way to develop his characterizations, storyline, and theme. What approach does Cahan take to reproducing the speech of his characters, and what alternate approaches could he have taken?

Source: Abraham Cahan, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 41.