East European Jews — Jews without money — who confronted the terrors of emigrating to a crowded city and coping with early 20th century New York City dominate this coarse, tender biographical novel by Michael Gold. Greeting the reader with sex for sale, reeking dirt, in rude language, Gold’s powerful voice propelled his book through six editions in the four months after it was published in 1930. Currently there are five imprints and an e‑book. Many have powerful, skillful woodcuts by Howard Simon.
Focusing on family and neighbors in a Lower East Side tenement, stewed in poverty, he described schooling, illnesses, superstition, workplace, faith, love, and death, in a style reflecting both maudlin journalism and Hemingway-like stoicism. On the death of his 12-year old sister: “[neighbors] offered my mother the most dismal comfort. Why is there so much gloomy wisdom at the hearts of the poor?” Gold’s words wrench; life without money.