In Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, Yekl/Jake is a Russian Jewish immigrant who repeats loud and self-aggrandizing accounts of himself as a proudly assimilated American. This article uses Hannah Arendt’s writing on cliché and her 1943 essay “We Refugees” to argue that Cahan’s depiction of Jake exemplifies a type of performance, one that Arendt witnessed among Jewish refugees during her own experiences of displacement: a pattern of narrative erasure and fabrication, alienation from community, and “insane optimism which is next door to despair” (Arendt [1943] 2007, 268). While recent scholarship has deftly explored performances of American identity related to gender and language in the novella, less attention has been paid to identifiable patterns of self-narrative: in particular, the pressure to give an account of oneself as already having been a compatriot, and the inevitable fissures that undermine such hopeful but fabricated stories.

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