The Rise of David Levinsky

Author: Abraham Cahan

Chapter II

THE café was a spacious room of six corners and a lop-sided general appearance.

It was about 4 o’clock of an afternoon. I sat at the end of one of the tables, a glass of Russian tea before me. There were two other customers at that table, both poorly clad and, as it seemed to me, ill-fed. Two tables in a narrow and dingier part of the room were occupied by disheveled chess-players and three or four lookers-on. Altogether there were about fifteen people in the place. Some of the conversations were carried on aloud. A man with curly dark hair who was eating soup at the table directly in front of me was satirizing somebody between spoonfuls, relishing his acrimony as if it were spice to his soup. A feminine voice back of me was trying to prove to somebody that she did much more for her sister than her sister did for her. I was wretchedly ill at ease at first. I loathed myself for being here. I felt like one who had strayed into a disreputable den. In addition, I was in dread of being recognized. The man who sat by my side had the hair and the complexion of a gipsy. He looked exhausted and morose.

Presently he had a fried steak served him. It was heavily laden with onions.

As he fell to cutting and eating it hungrily the odor of the fried onions and the sound of his lips sickened me. The steak put him in good humor. He became sociable and turned out to be a gay, though a venomous, fellow. His small talk raised my spirits, too. Nor did anybody in the café seem to know who I was or to take any notice of me. I took a humorous view of the situation and had the gipsy-faced man tell me who was who

"Shall I begin with this great man?" he asked, facetiously, pointing his fork at himself. "I am the world-renowned translator and feuilleton writer whose writings have greatly increased the circulation of the Yiddish Tribune."

Under the guise of playful vanity he gave vent to a torrent of self-appreciation. He then named all the "other notables present"—a poet, a cartoonist, a budding playwright, a distinguished Russian revolutionist, an editor, and another newspaper man—maligning and deriding some of them and grudgingly praising the others. Much of what he said was lost upon me, for, although he knew that I was a rank outsider, he used a jargon of nicknames, catch-phrases, and allusions that was apparently peculiar to the East Side Bohème. He was part of that little world, and he was unable to put himself in the place of one who was not. I subsequently had occasion to read one of his articles and I found it full of the same jargon. The public did not understand him, but he either did not know it or did not care

As he did not point out Tevkin to me, I concluded that the Hebrew poet was not at the café

"Do you know Tevkin?" I inquired.

"There he is," he answered, directing my glance to a gray-haired, clean-shaven, commonplace-looking man of medium stature who stood in the chess corner, watching one of the games. "Do you know him?"

"No, but I have heard of him. You did not include him in your list of notables, did you?"

"Oh, well, he was a notable once upon a time. Our rule is, ’Let the dead past bury it’s dead.’"

I felt sorry for poor Tevkin. Turning half-way around in my seat, I took to eying the Hebrew poet. I felt disappointed. That this prosaic-looking old man should have written the lines that I had read at the Astor Library seemed inconceivable. The fact, however, that he was the father of the tall, stately, beautiful girl whose image was ever before me ennobled his face

I stepped over to him and said: "You are Mr. Tevkin, aren’t you? Allow me to introduce myself. Levinsky."

He bowed, grasping my hand, evidently loath to take his eyes off the chess-players

"I read some of your poems the other day," I added

"My poems?" he asked, coloring

"Yes; I had heard of them, and as I happened to be at the Astor Library I asked for your three volumes. I read several things in each of them. I liked them tremendously."

He blushed again. "It seems an age since they were written," he said, in confusion. "Those were different days."

We sat down at a secluded table. To propitiate the proprietor and the waiter I ordered hot cheese-cakes. I offered to order something for Tevkin, but he declined, and he ordered a glass of tea, with the tacit understanding that he was to pay for it himself

"Why don’t you give us some more poems like those?"

He produced his business card, saying, "This is the kind of poetry that goes in America."

The card described him as a "general business agent and real-estate broker." This meant that he earned, or tried to earn, an income by acting as broker for people who wanted to sell or buy soda-and-cigarette stands, news-stands, laundries, grocery-stores, delicatessen-stores, butcher shops, cigar-stores, book-stores, and what not, from a peddier’s push-cart to a "parcel" of real estate or an interest in a small factory. Scores of stores and stands change hands in the Ghetto every day, the purchaser being usually a workman who has saved up some money with an eye to business

"Does it pay?" I ventured to ask.

"I am not in it merely for the fun of it, am I?" he returned, somewhat resentfully. "Business is business and poetry is poetry. I hate to confound the two. One must make a living. Thank God, I know how to look things in the face. I am no dreamer. It is sweet to earn your livelihood."

"Of course it is. Still, dreaming is no crime, either."

"Ah, that’s another kind of dreaming. Do you write?"

"Oh no," I said, with a laugh. "I am just a prosaic business man." And by way of showing that I was not, I veered the conversation back to his poetry.

I sought to impress him with a sense of my deep and critical appreciation of what I had read in his three volumes. I spoke enthusiastically of most of it, but took exception to the basic idea in a poem on Job and Solomon

"It’s fine as poetry," I said. "Some lines in it are perfectly beautiful.

But the parallel is not convincing."

"Why not?" he said, bristling up.

We locked horns. He was pugnacious, bitter, but ineffectual. He quoted Hebrew, he spoke partly in Yiddish and partly in English; he repeatedly used the words "subjective" and "objective"; he dwelt on Job’s "obvious tragedy" and Solomon’s "inner sadness," but he was a poor talker and apparently displeased with his own argument

"Oh, I don’t make myself clear," he said, in despair

"But you do," I reassured him. "I understand you perfectly."

"No, you don’t. You’re only saying it to please me. But then what matters it whether a business agent has a correct conception of Solomon’s psychology or not?" he said, bitterly. "Seriously, Mr. Levinsky, I am often out of sorts with myself for hanging around this café. This is the gathering-place of talent, not of business agents."

"Why? Why?" I tried to console him. "I am sure you have more talent than all of them put together. Do you think anybody in this café could write verse or prose like yours?"

He looked down, his features hardening into a frown. "Anyhow, I cannot afford the time. While I loiter here I am liable to miss a customer. I must give myself entirely to my business, entirely, entirely—every bit of myself. I must forget I ever did any scribbling." "You are taking it too hard, Mr. Tevkin. One can attend to business and yet find time for writing."

All at once he brightened up bashfully and took to reciting a Hebrew poem.

Here is the essence of it: "Since the destruction of the Temple instrumental music has been forbidden in the synagogues. The Children of Israel are in mourning. They are in exile and in mourning. Silent is their harp. So is mine. I am in exile. I am in a strange land. My harp is silent." "Is it your poem?" I asked.

He nodded bashfully

"When did you compose it?"

"A few weeks ago."

"Has it been printed?" He shook his head


"I could have it printed in a Hebrew weekly we publish here, but—well, I did not care to."

"You mean The Pen?"

"Yes. Do you see it sometimes?"

"I did, once. I am going to subscribe for it. Anyhow, the poem belies itself. It shows that your harp has not fallen silent."

He smiled, flushed with satisfaction, like a shy schoolboy, and proceeded to recite another Hebrew poem: "Most song-birds do not sing in captivity. I was once a song-bird, but America is my cage. It is not my home. My song is gone."

"This poem, too, gives itself the lie!" I declared. "But the idea of America being likened to a prison!"

"It is of my soul I speak," he said, resentfully. "Russia did not imprison it, did it? Russia is a better country than America, anyhow, even if she is oppressed by a czar. It’s a freer country, too—for the spirit, at least.

There is more poetry there, more music, more feeling, even if our people do suffer appalling persecution. The Russian people are really a warm-hearted people. Besides, one enjoys life in Russia better than here. Oh, a thousand times better. There is too much materialism here, too much hurry and too much prose, and—yes, too much machinery. It’s all very well to make shoes or bread by machinery, but alas! the things of the spirit, too, seem to be machine-made in America. If my younger children were not so attached to this country and did not love it so, and if I could make a living in Russia now, I should be ready to go back at once."

"’Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God,’" I quoted, gaily.

"It’s all a matter of mood. Poets are men of moods." And again I quoted, "’Attend unto me, O my friend, and give ear unto me, O my comrade.’" I took up the cudgels for America

He listened gloomily, leaving my arguments unanswered. By way of broaching the subject of his daughter I steered my talk to a point that gave me a chance to refer to his little "meditation," "My Children." "How well you do remember my poor little volumes," he said, greatly flattered. "Yes, ’My children love me.’ They are not children, but angels.

And yet—God save me from having to be supported by them. They bring in a considerable sum at the end of the week, and they hate to see me work or worry. But, oh, how sweet it is to earn one’s own living! Thank God, I do earn my share and my wife’s. My children are bitterly opposed to it. They beg me to stay home, but I say: ’No, children mine! As long as your father can earn his bread, his bread he will earn.’ That’s why my humdrum occupation is so sweet to me." At this he lowered his eyes and said, with the embarrassed simper which seemed to accompany every remark of his that implied self-appreciation, "I wrote something on this subject the other day, just a line or two: ’There are instances when the jewel of poetry glints out of the prose of trade.’"

The fact that his children contributed to the maintenance of the family nest was evidently a sore spot in his heart

His face, sensitive and mobile in the extreme, was like a cinematographic film. It recorded the subtlest change in his mood. The notion of its being a commonplace face seemed to me absurd now. It was a different image almost every minute, and my mental portrait of it was as unlike my first impression of it as a motion picture is unlike any of its component photographs

I parted from him without referring to his daughter, but I felt that I had won his heart, and it seemed to be a matter of days when he would invite me to his house

The next time I saw him, on an afternoon at Yampolsky’s café again, there was an elusive deference in his demeanor. He seemed to me more reserved and ill at ease than he had been on the previous occasion. Finally he said, "I had no idea you were David Levinsky, the cloak-manufacturer."

My vanity was so flattered that I was unable to restrain my face from betraying it. I answered, with a beaming smile, "I told you I was in the cloak business, didn’t I?"

"I don’t think you did. Anyhow, I did not know what kind of a cloak-factory yours was," he said

"What kind do you mean?" I laughed.

"Well, I am glad to know you are so successful. There was somebody who recognized you last time you were here. Your secret leaked out."

"Secret! Well, what difference does it all make? To possess a talent like yours is a far greater success than to own a factory, even if mine were the largest in the world."

He waved his hand deprecatingly

Our conversation was disturbed by a quarrel between two men at a near-by table. I was at a loss to make out what it was all about. Tevkin attempted to enlighten me, but I listened to him only partly, being interested in the darts of the two belligerents. All I could gather was that they were story-writers of two opposing schools. I felt, however, that their hostility was based upon professional jealousy rather than upon a divergence of artistic ideals

Finally one of them paid his check and departed. Tevkin told me more about them. He spoke of the one who stayed in the café with admiration. "He’s a real artist; some of his stories are perfect gems," he said. "He’s a good fellow, too. Only he thinks too much of himself. But then perhaps this is an inevitable part of talent, the shadow that is inseparable from the light of genius."

"Perhaps it’s the engine that sets it in motion, gives it incentive."

"Perhaps. I wish I had some of it." I reflected that he did seem to have some of "it." At all events, he did not seem to begrudge others their success. He spoke of the other people in the café with singular good-will, and even enthusiasm, in fact

Some of the people present I had seen on my previous visit. Of the others Tevkin pointed out a man to me who knew six languages well and had a working acquaintance with several more; another who had published an excellent Hebrew translation of some of the English poets, and a third whose son, a young violinist, "had taken Europe by storm."

An intellectual-looking Gentile made his entry. He shook hands with one of the men I had seen on the former occasion and seated himself by his side

"Either a journalist in search of material," Tevkin explained to me in answer to a question, "or simply a man of literary tastes who is drawn to the atmosphere of this place."

The café rose in my estimation

I learned from Tevkin that many of Yampolsky’s patrons were poor working-men and that some of these were poets, writers of stories, or thinkers, but that the café was also frequented by some professional and business men. At this he directed my attention to a "Talmud-faced" man whom he described as a liquor-dealer who "would be a celebrated writer if he were not worth half a million." The last piece of information was a most agreeable surprise to me. It made me feel safe in the place. I regarded the liquor-dealer with some contempt, however. "Pshaw! half a million. He’s probably worth a good deal less.

Anyhow, I could buy and sell him." At the same time I said to myself, "He’s well-to-do and yet he chums around with people in whom intellectual Gentiles take an interest." I envied him. I felt cheap

I felt still cheaper when I heard that the literary liquor-dealer generously contributed to the maintenance of The Pen, the Hebrew weekly with which Tevkin was connected, and that he, the liquor-dealer, wrote for that publication

It appeared that Tevkin had an office which was a short distance from the bohemian café. I asked to see it, and he yielded reluctantly

"You can take it for granted that your office is a more imposing one than mine," he jested

"Ah, but there was a time when all my office amounted to was an old desk. So there will be a time when yours will occupy a splendid building on Wall Street."

"That’s far more than I aspire to. All I want is to make a modest living, so that my daughters should not have to go to work. They don’t work in a shop, of course. One is a stenographer in a fine office and the other a school-teacher. But what difference does it make?"

His office proved to be the hall bedroom of an apartment occupied by the family of a cantor named Wolpert. We first entered the dining-room, a door connecting it with Tevkin’s "office" being wide open. It was late and the gas-light was burning. Seated at a large oval table, covered with a white oil-cloth, was Wolpert and two other men, all the three of them with full beards and with the stamp of intellectual life on their faces

"There are some queer people in the world who will still read my poetry," Tevkin said to them, by way of introducing me. "Here is one of them. Mr.

Levinsky, David Levinsky, the cloak-manufacturer."

The announcement made something of a stir.

Mrs. Wolpert brought us tea. From the ensuing conversation I gleaned that these people, including Tevkin, were ardent Zionists of a certain type, and that they were part of a group in which the poet was a ruling spirit. When I happened to drop a remark to the effect that Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, was a dead language, Wolpert exclaimed: "Oh no! Not any longer, Mr. Levinsky. It has risen from the dead."

The other two chimed in, each in his way, the burden of their argument being that Hebrew was the living tongue of the Zionist colonists in Palestine

"The children of our colonists speak it as American children do English," said Tevkin, exultingly. "They speak it as the sons and daughters of Jerusalem spoke it at the time of the prophets. We are no dreamers. We can tell the difference between a dream and a hard fact, can’t we?"—to the other two. "For centuries the tongue of our fathers spoke from the grave to us. Now, however, it has come to life again."

He took me into his "office," lighting the gas-jet in it. A few minutes later he shut the dining-room door, his face assuming an extremely grave mien

"By the way, an idea has occurred to me," he said. "But first I want you to know that I do not mean to profit by our spiritual friendship for purposes of a material nature. Do you believe me?"

"I certainly do. Go ahead, Mr. Tevkin."

"What I want to say is a pure matter of business. Do you understand? If you don’t want to go into it, just say so, and we shall drop it."

"Of course," I answered

We were unable to look each other in the face.

"There is a parcel of real estate in Brooklyn," he resumed. "One could have it for a song."

"But I don’t buy real estate," I replied, my cheeks on fire. He looked at the floor and, after a moment’s silence, he said: "That’s all. Excuse me. I don’t want you to think I want to presume upon our acquaintance."

"But I don’t. On the contrary, I wish it were in my line. I should be glad to—"

"That’s all," he cut me short. "Let us say no more about it." And he made an awkward effort to talk Zionism again


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Rise of David Levinsky

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Rise of David Levinsky

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Abraham Cahan, "Chapter II," The Rise of David Levinsky in The Rise of David Levinsky (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1903), Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2019,

MLA: Cahan, Abraham. "Chapter II." The Rise of David Levinsky, in The Rise of David Levinsky, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1903, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2019.

Harvard: Cahan, A, 'Chapter II' in The Rise of David Levinsky. cited in 1903, The Rise of David Levinsky, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2019, from