Abraham Cahan’s “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto”

Resource Kit by
Jessica Kirzane

Module Content



Abraham Cahan’s English-language novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, published in 1896, is a work of realistic fiction that draws attention to Jewish immigrants’ complicated negotiations of personal and cultural identity in New York at the turn of the century. It does so with humor, criticism, and compassion. The novel’s plot centers on Yekl, known as Jake, a Jewish immigrant sweatshop worker. He is proudly charting a path toward Americanization through consumption of popular culture, acquirement of rudimentary English, and flirtations with assimilating Jewish women in the more sexually liberated environment of the American city. When Jake's wife, Gitl, and their son arrive in America, Jake is ashamed of her East European Jewish ways of speech and dress and sees her as everything he has been trying not to be. Although she tries to please him, he ultimately divorces her. He comes to regret the loss of this wife—the idea of her had connected him to the person he used to be.

This kit presents historical materials, images, excerpts from related literary sources, and even a thematically relevant song, to give context and richness to lessons about the novella.