The Shallowness of Materialism in Lessing’s “The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen”
Modern America promotes a culture of materialism. Many migrants find themselves caught up in and adapting the same ideals so that those who are traditional and less materialistic change as they become “Americanized”. Unfortunately, American materialism is a shallow culture compared to the richness of the traditions they shed off in favor of the former. In his story, “The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen”, Bruno Lessing depicts its main characters, Abel and Gottlieb, as snobs and hypocrites to illustrate the shallowness of their materialistic values.
The snobbery and hypocrisy of the two are set-off when they invite their father to live with them in America. Shadrach Cohen is a very traditional Russian Jew. He “wore a gabardine…had long, straggling grey beard and ringlets” (Lessing). After meals, he dons the prayer cap and gives thanks to God. He is the very image of a migrant that the brothers “so frequently ridiculed” (Lessing).
In contrast, Abel and Gottlieb are proud to have Americanized themselves in behavior, outlook in life and manner of dressing. The first time they meet their father, they “looked at each other in dismay” (Lessing) over their father’s outfit. When his father asks him to respond to his after-meal prayers, Abel complains in that prayer after meals is “not quite American” (Lessing), he said. Their concept of Americanization, however, has made Abel and Gottlieb pretentious. They developed a sense of shame towards their own religion and origin.
In the end, however, the sons realize the shallowness of their adopted American values when their father asserts his authority over them and takes over their business. Instead of being shunned, other businessmen “looked upon (Shadrach) with feeling akin to reverence” (Lessing). They learned that their Jewish heritage is not something to be ashamed of, after all, since America also respects it. Their father’s experience in America teaches them the error of their ways.
Lessing, Bruno. “The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen”