Heirs of Yesterday
Cover for "Heirs of Yesterday" by Emma Wolf. (WSU Press)

Heirs of Yesterday by Emma Wolf (1865–1932) uses a love story to explore familial loyalty, American individualism and anti-Semitism. Wayne State University Press has bought a new edition of the classic novel.

Jean Willard is vivacious, talented, gorgeous and thoroughly delightful. She is 24 years old in 1898 as the novel Heirs of Yesterday begins. Orphaned a decade earlier, she lives with her bachelor uncle, Daniel, in a fine San Francisco home. Next door lives her uncle’s best friend and employer, the widower Joseph May. All these years, May’s son Philip has been in Europe, continuing his medical education. The two old men have long indulged in a playful fantasy that when Philip returns to San Francisco, he will marry Jean. They describe him, accurately, as tall, handsome and brilliant. She half-likes the daydream herself.

And then Philip does return.

He turns out to be just as advertised, tall, handsome and brilliant, but in one way, he fails to meet specifications. May and Willard, though their names do not betray this, are Jews. Philip, during his years in Europe, has discovered that “to be a Jew is to be socially handicapped for life.” He decides not to let on that he has Jewish roots.

He has no sympathy for Jews, no desire to live among them, no feeling for Jewish practice, and “from the meager memory I have of it, I considers the Judaism a dead letter.” He even attends services from time to time at a Unitarian church. He passes as a non-Jew, breaking his father’s heart.

Jean knows that she disapproves, too, but she has to figure out why.

With that set-up, novelist Emma Wolf presents a portrait of her hometown and her own milieu, San Francisco, in this up-to-the-minute novel, first published in 1900 and still relevant now. Many of the older Jews in her social circle have achieved financial success, and their children have achieved cultural success, though not complete acceptance.

The Jews in this novel thus face the decision of how much Jewishness matters to them and, if being Jewish does matter, why? Some of them value Judaism, especially a spiritually sensitive Reform Judaism. Some value Jewish ethics; some value their place in a supportive Jewish community. Some simply believe that “the chain cannot be broken.”

Sharply delineated characters argue intelligently about the place of universalism and particularism, the virtues of Christianity and Judaism, how and whether prayer can have meaning for adult. They think about their place in Jewishness.

Dr. Philip May wants out of the religion, but that turns out to have its costs as well. A non-Jewish club rejects his application to join, scorning him for denying his roots. Dr. May punctures that smug accusation by noting that if he had been more up-front, they would have rejected him anyway, for being Jewish. The Jewish community, though, also feels discomfort with him. Philip has to work through his guilt for hurting his father, his ambivalence about reconnecting with Judaism and his attraction to Jean.

The Jewish Publication Society debated publishing “Heirs of Yesterday” and, in a close vote, decided against. Apparently, they felt more comfortable with “ghetto stories,” nostalgia about the Jewish past, than with Emma Wolf’s realism. Wolf succeeded in finding a general publisher, A.C. McClung of Chicago. The work sold well, apparently attracting Jewish and non-Jewish readers; the publisher brought out reprints in succeeding years.

Now, Wayne State University Press has brought out a new edition of the novel, along with an introduction by Barbara Cantalupo and Lori Harrison-Kahan, two professors of English.  The introduction re-introduces readers to a once popular novelist, to her family history, to her connections with other literary figures, and to the issues that roiled Jewish world at the turn of the previous century.

Those issues matter just as much today.