"No American fiction of the year merits recognition more than this Russian's stories of Yiddish life. … [Mr. Cahan] is a humorist, and his humor does not spare the sordid and uncouth aspects of the character whose pathos he so tenderly reveals." — William Dean Howells
Yekl (1896), the novel upon which the highly successful film Hester Street was based, was written by Abraham Cahan, editor of the prestigious Jewish Daily Forward for half a century. It is probably the first novel in English that had a New York East Side immigrant as its hero; reviewing it, Howells hailed Cahan as "a new star of realism." The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories came two years later.
The Jews that Sholem Aleichem described in their little old-world shtetl had emigrated; other tale-tellers were needed to describe the Jewish experience in the tenements and garment factories of New York. Cahan was one of the first to write about them in English. His book gives a better picture than most works of non-fiction of what immigrant life was like at the turn of the century. Cahan clearly delineates the clash of cultures and shows the innumerable problems, crises and dilemmas of acculturations.
In Yekl, the central problem derives from a social condition: the urgent desire of the hero to become a real American, to be less a "greenhorn"; but the play of events is around an emotional crisis; Yekl no longer loves the wife he left behind, who has now rejoined him in the new land, and who seems to him shockingly European.
In The Imported Bridegroom, the issue is apparently religious, a clash between traditional faith and secularism; but we are left wondering whether philosophy has not become commingled with sociology. Other stories deal with sweatshop life, romance in the slums, a wedding in the ghetto.