Ravage & Son

Written by Jerome Charyn
Review by Beth Kanell

With biting humor and fierce tenderness, Jerome Charyn builds the world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Jewish ghetto from 1883 onward, rife with crime, passion, and the competition of shrewd businessmen and immigrant gangs. The dark wrestling for room to prosper in such a crowded district offers Charyn, a seasoned author, room for his own version of Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.

Charyn’s Cahan is an idealist determined to build the Jewish immigrants into a self-aware community. “He’d been an outlaw before he was an editor,” Charyn insists. Half his news is made up, half cobbled quickly from revelations around him, all tinged with the literary that he loves. What saves his bottom line is the remarkable Yiddish advice column he devises. (This is not fictional at all—the Bintel Brief lasted from 1906 until 1970.)

Charyn provides a right-angled line of plot and character with scrap dealer and powermonger Lionel Ravage and probable progeny Ben, whom Cahan rescues and pushes into law school. “Cahan was at his best as the penny author Max Vilna,” Charyn proposes, and the romantic heroism of the newspaper editor is inextricably tied to the surging power of Ben Ravage. Add the violence of poverty and that of ethnic snobbery—it’s the German Jews who live uptown, prosper, and form a vigilante gang, the Kehilla, while the downtown Eastern Europeans starve, bleed, and suffer from burgeoning crime.

Charyn’s narrative is strongly inflected with the Yiddish tongue and mode of revelation. This calls for patience and more than the usual suspension of disbelief. Nor is there any way to guess how close the fictional Abraham Cahan comes to the biographical. Yet the suspense of each chapter suggests that it’s up to us to enfold this hero anyway.