Binary, Transformation, and Myth: Mary Antin’s Redefinition of Jewish Autobiography

In her autobiography The Promised Land, Mary Antin characterizes the Jewish self as one in constant relation to a binary between two worlds—the authority and the alien, the home and the foreign, the sovereign and the strange. It is through this conceptual framework that Antin iterates her personal story of immigration and consequent spiritual renewal as a mythic representation of civilizational, and ultimately cosmic, transformation. In comparison to other classic Jewish autobiographies, The Promised Land repositions the genre to transcend the story of the Jewish individual and the Jewish nation. Employing this two-world binary as an analytical framework, readers must explore her work alongside the crafted life stories of Gluckel of Hameln, Solomon Maimon, and Ephraim Lisitzky. In doing so, we will reveal the diverse manifestations of these two worlds within the Jewish experience and investigate how various relationships between the authority and the alien color a spectrum of individual and mythic transformations.

In order to fully realize Antin’s revolutionary redefinition of the Jewish autobiographical master narrative, one must examine the variant expressions of two-worldliness that pervade Jewish life writing. Tension between two worlds plays a central role in all of the autobiographies under examination, but the protagonists’ conceptions of and relationships to this binary differ considerably. To begin, Gluckel of Hameln’s memoirs weave together opposing strands of authority and alien. She organizes the world around her into these two categories. She continually draws from both sources to achieve the constitution of her selfhood, while simultaneously maintaining the hierarchal distinction between the two. Emblematic of the type of stories that comprise her work, Gluckel pens a didactic narrative about Alexander of Macedon. She concludes,

“This story I do not write as truth. It may be a heathenish fable. I have written it here to pass my time and to show that there are people in this world who care not for riches, relying always on their Creator. We have, thank God, our books of moral from which we learn much good” (11).

With this admission, readers learn that Gluckel understands herself within a binary framework between Jewish texts, traditions, and community and non-Jewish histories, customs, and culture. While the world of Jewish tradition commands Gluckel’s intimate understanding of faith, fate, and family, the presence of the external, non-Jewish world is not all together shunned. In this way, Gluckel of Hameln’s autobiography nuances the binary between authority and alien. She resolves the tension between these two worlds by extracting shards of moral knowledge and personal meaning from non-Jewish tales. Gluckel maintains the binary hierarchy, deeply rooted within the Jewish world, but the alien world does influence Gluckel’s self-meaning through its fables.

Solomon Maimon’s autobiography illustrates a vastly different relationship between the authority and the alien, the Jewish and the non-Jewish. Maimon tells his story of immigration from the Jewish world of Poland to the non-Jewish world of Berlin. Like Antin’s story of immigration to America, Maimon structures his life story within this binary. His old, “past” life in a traditional Jewish community is portrayed in constant juxtaposition to his new, “present” life in an expansive, enlightened world. At the beginning of his life, the world of Jewish tradition and culture commands Maimon’s understanding of himself and the world around him, like Gluckel of Hameln. In Poland, the authority is the Jewish world of tradition and the alien is the non-Jewish world of secular knowledge and culture. But the influence of the alien on Maimon’s life extends far beyond the synthesis of “heathen” narratives—it eventually encompasses his consciousness so strongly that he actually reverses the binary. Berlin, the capital of enlightenment scholarship, becomes the authority, and Poland, the land of narrow mindedness and backwards irrationality, becomes the alien. The way that Maimon describes Poland’s Jewish language, Yiddish, as “defective,” Jewish religion as superstitious, and Jewish learning as ineffective illustrates his self-constructed position as an outsider, one who has removed himself from the authoritative world of Poland Jewry (34). Maimon writes,

“The language of the Talmud is composed of various Oriental languages and dialects; there is even many a word in it from Greek and Latin…and what is worse, as the Talmud is not pointed, you cannot even tell how such words, that are not pure Hebrew, are to be read… This sort of study … is a kind of Talmudic skepticism, and utterly incompatible with any systematic study directed to some end” (48).

Maimon extracts himself from this Jewish world, reversing the binary that continues to characterize his torn existence as a Jew. But his story does not end there. Maimon’s relation to this binary continues to evolve after his immigration to Berlin. He seeks to enter a new realm of superior scholarship, but soon, once again, he renders the world of authority into the alien. After finally succeeding to gain access to the inner circle of Mendelssohn and his colleagues, Maimon repeats his pattern of rebellion against the authority, pushing his limits until he becomes estranged once again. He describes this process in Berlin,

“At last Mendelssohn asked me to see him, when he informed me of this alienation, and pointed out to me its causes. They complained that I had not made up my mind to any plan of life, and had thereby rendered fruitless all their exertion on my behalf; (2) that I was trying to spread dangerous opinions and systems; and (3) that, according to general rumor, I was leading a rather loose life” (240).

Following this rejection, Maimon remains an outcast, an alien from both of the worlds he once considered as his authority. Illustrated through his marginalization from these two contrasting worlds, Maimon represents himself as a destined misfit, a fated outsider, independent from any canon, tradition, or culture of authority.

A final personality to leverage in an analysis of Antin’s autobiography is Ephraim Lisitzky, who centers this two-world binary on the same focal point as Antin’s, the immigration to America. When Lisitzky arrives in America, his perception of the authoritative and alien worlds initially remains static. The cultural world of Jewish Slutzk, where “the learned and the pious had been the vast majority,” beckon him from a foreign, confusing, and unwelcoming America, so much so that Lisitzky says he feels “like an alien” in this new world (67). Despite the fact that Lisitzky maintains the binary between the home and the foreign, Slutzk and Boston, he revokes his decision to return to the old world of Talmud and tradition. Instead, he remains in America, where choice elements of this different, foreign Jewry begin to seep into Lisitzky’s consciousness. While Gluckel of Hameln finds commonalities between the worlds of authority and alien through storytelling and personal meaning, Lisitzky embraces the contradictory tension between the two worlds in his self-constitution. His self-conception mimics the binary juxtaposition that characterizes the entire book:

“My mind was broken up into too many separate sovereignties, mutually contradictory and at odd with one another, each claiming exclusive obedience. This multiplicity of sovereignty prevailed also in my conception of Judaism. As a result, my Jewish outlook, too, became subject to conflicts and contradictions” (296).

In effect, Lisitzky remains torn between the forces of two worlds, and this tension becomes the essence of his unique individuality. He creates “a new life… out of a clash of elements violently torn from their context and matrix and wretched from their ordered categories and equations” (299). Lisitzky transforms a previously paralyzing binary into a productive and creative dissonance that develops a “new organic form,” his selfhood (296).

Antin’s autobiography revolves around a rupture in her identity, from her past self in Russia’s Pale of Settlement to her new life in America. Similar to Maimon’s memoirs, Antin as the author creates a total separation between her narrating self in the present and her narrated self in the past, prior to her immigration. She begins her book, “I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell” (1). Her self-reinvention finds roots in the complete reversal of her relationship to the two worlds she moves between. Unlike Gluckel and Lisitzky, Antin attempts to shed herself of any affiliation with the Jewish world, which was previously all she ever knew. “I think I have thoroughly assimilated my past—I have done its bidding—I was now to be of to-day,” Antin writes, “It is painful to be conscious of two worlds” (3). Changing her name, learning English, and committing herself to thorough “Americanization,” Mary attempts to conceal and banish any remnant of tension between her old and new worlds. She employs the act of autobiography to reverse the binary of the authority of the alien and, in effect, materialize the reinvention of herself as wholly American.

Like many of the Jewish autobiographers discussed, Antin presents her past through the perspective of her present selfhood. She reads aspects of her current consciousness onto events from her childhood; she establishes her inclinations toward rational thought and secularism as inherent. In one such story, her younger self asks Reb’ Lebe, “Who made God?” and is met with flabbergasted rebuke (93). This scene echoes a moment in Maimon’s recollections, which tells of his ability to challenge his father’s superstitious theological assumptions from a very young age, as if Maimon were a heretic and misfit in the Jewish community for all time. Both authors ascribe certain qualities of their “new” selves onto their “old” selves, foreshadowing their eventual rupture and transformation, but Antin takes this process a step further. She signals that the person she was before her immigration was not her true, authentic self, who is now liberated in America. “Perhaps I have established that I was more Jew than Gentile,” she writes, “though I can still prove that I was none the less a fraud” (102). The Promised Land sets out to prove that once she reached American soil, Antin could strip off her inauthentic self of the old Jewish world and “overcome [her] foreign idiosyncrasies” as a genuine American (281). Upon her departure from the Pale, Antin narrates, “It was delightful just to be myself. I rejoiced … in the relaxation of discipline and the general demoralization of our daily life” (132). By constructing the image of her past as a separate selfhood that masked her true (proto-American) being, Antin rejects her condition of being pulled between two worlds, essentially denying that the old world was, in fact, ever truly her “authority.” By writing the memories of her youth, Mary ascribes her Americanized qualities onto her younger self. In effect, she subverts the Jewish authoritative world of her past in a retroactive way, inscribing her rebellion against and rejection of Russian Jewry into her former consciousness. In this way, the act of autobiographical composition is a method for Antin to defeat and conceal the painful tension of existing between two contrasting worlds by permanently engraving her current selfhood onto her past.

Maimon and Lisitzky construct their personal relationships to two contrasting worlds in an allegorical, mythic scale of Jewish civilization. Echoed by the biblical allusions in Antin’s chapter titles, Maimon infuses biblical imagery in his story to characterize the quintessential Jewish experience in the modern world. He travels to Berlin, expecting to enter paradise, a land of universal truth and modernity. Instead, Maimon is initially refused entry at the city gates because he is seen as an impoverished Jewish beggar from the old world. Such a dramatic incident echoes the biblical narrative of Adam’s banishment from Eden. As this example demonstrates, Maimon’s autobiography elevates the personal to the mythical, representing the condition of the modern Jew as a chronic outcast, suspended between two worlds but never fully belonging to either. Lisitzky also builds his self-narrative as an emblem of all American Jewry. He, too, presents a story with mythic proportions and “universal Jewish implication” (287). Lisitzky explains, “The story of that period of my life seemed to me worth telling for the reason that its significance is not confined to myself as an isolated individual but is applicable to the Jewish personality in general” (287). Lisitzky represents his struggle between the old and new worlds as an experience of spearheading a new form of Jewishness that preserves ancient culture while embracing the exciting novelty of American life. Likening this epic to the plight of Native Americans, Lisitzky’s autobiography intentionally constitutes a civilizational Jewish narrative. He writes, “[Jewish culture struggles] to preserve something of its own character in the midst of this new existence. This drama, with its aspect of the sublime and the tragic, holds great promise for American Hebrew poetry, [which] partakes of the nature of pioneering” (300). Both Maimon and Lisitzky mobilize their personal struggles within a two-world binary to erect a mythic representation of the Jewish people.

Mary Antin transforms this Jewish autobiographical model by extending her personal narrative beyond a mythic tale of the Jewish civilization. Antin melds her autobiography to an American myth and ultimately innovates a transcendentalist narrative of cosmic implication. By exploring these significant breaks from the Jewish autobiographical tradition, readers understand the extent to which Antin rewrites the master narrative of the Jewish autobiography. The first section of her book does not expound upon Antin’s own memories but instead details the recollections of her parents and community in Russia. Throughout this portion of her story, Antin engineers the portrayal of the Pale of Settlement to fit the mythical American binary of life before immigration in opposition to the Land of the Free. Antin succeeds in this endeavor by insisting upon the religious persecution of the Jews, the backwardness of their community, and the narrowness of their cultural and intellectual achievements in Russia. The author must reach beyond her authentic personal experiences to accomplish this depiction of the world before America. She writes, “Russia was another Egypt…. It was not so bad in Polotzk, within the Pale; but in Russian cities, and even more in the country districts… the Gentiles made the Passover a time of horror for the Jews” (9-10). Antin crafts her personal story as a grand representation of the American dream, echoing the proud narrative of American pioneers fleeing religious persecution and seeking freedom, education, and economic opportunity. Her construction of two juxtaposing worlds, from the “prison of the Pale” to the “land of freedom,” corroborates her claim to speak for all immigrants and all Americans, not only the Jews (267). Drawing a mythic narrative out of her immigration story, Antin employs the binary between two worlds as a method to position herself in the legitimate American consciousness.

Ultimately, The Promised Land transforms the genre of Jewish autobiography by producing a story of spiritual rupture and renewal with cosmic significance. Surpassing the mythic claims of former Jewish autobiographers, Antin posits her story as “the image of the universe” and “the heir of all ages” (197). Portraying immigration to America as a transcendentalist spiritual conversion, Antin considers her affairs to be “divided… from other men’s” (232). Within the binary framework between old and new worlds, Antin articulates her “tale of immortal life” as moments of continual “self-birth,” of connecting with nature, universal truth, and spiritual wholeness through a rupture from one selfhood to another (71). Such cosmic evolution is expressed through her personal story that embodies the American dream. She writes, “So at last I was going to America! Really, really going, at last! The boundaries burst. The arch of heaven soared. A million suns shone out for every star. The winds rushed in from outer space, roaring in my ears. ‘America! America!’” (129).

As our analysis reveals, Mary Antin builds upon the tradition of Jewish autobiography, understanding selfhood through the lens of a two-world binary. But she does this in a new, transformative way. Unlike the life writings of Gluckel of Hameln, Solomon Maimon, and Ephraim Lisitzky, Antin crafts her story to extend beyond the civilizational narrative of the Jewish people. She claims possession over the myth of American immigration, portraying this caesura as a cosmic, spiritual renewal with universal consequence. Antin redefines autobiography as a vehicle to reinvent her past, fashion her American selfhood, and explain universal truth as dependent upon personal spiritual rupture and rebirth.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Life Writing: The Struggle for Selfhood with Professor Roskies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land: By Mary Antin. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1912. Print.

Glueckel. The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir. Trans. Beth-Zion Abrahams. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2012. Print.

Lisitzky, Ephraim E. In the Grip of Cross-currents. New York: Bloch Pub., 1959. Print.

Maimon, Salomon. Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography. Trans. John Clark Murray. Paisley: A. Gardner, 1888. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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