Fact: one-third of all the immigrants to America returned to their country of origin. Although many of them came intending to go home once they had earned seed money to establish themselves in their own countries, some, owing to illness--trachoma or tuberculosis, for example--never got past Ellis Island; some were deported for political reasons; and some simply lost heart.
Told against this background, Come with Me to Babylon relates the story of the Cohen family, who came to America seeking the Golden Medina and found instead a fallen world. Beginning in Russia and concluding in New York and New Jersey, the story exposes family secrets, cultural conflicts, the corruption of the American dream, and love's divides.
Esther and Meyer Cohen are middle-aged when they leave Russia for America. Do-nothing socialist Meyer is reluctant to emigrate, harboring hopes that the government will return the family distillery, but Esther argues that the Czarist officials cannot be trusted, and that they should make the move for the sake of their children, beautiful Fanny and artistic Ben. Meyer complies, but he's pessimistic about adjusting to a raw new culture.
Their exit from Russia is not without its dangers, given that Ben is draft age and requires an exit visa, which will require chicanery and bribes. The border crossing will be particularly hazardous. And the steam-ship voyage in steerage is even worse than they feared.
In New York City, Fanny and Ben are excited about new jobs and American acquaintances, but Meyer's gloom deepens. As the Cohens wait for the plot of land in Carmel, New Jersey, that they've been promised by the Baron de Hirsch fund, the dirt and poverty of the city overwhelm him, and the tenement houses seem to him like cages. But the event that kills his soul is the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which Fanny barely survives. The family hastens to Carmel, where a community of Jewish farmers live in a loosely bound collective--an experiment that the participants hope will give them a dignified life in America.
Further dispirited by the religious narrowness and the lack of culture and education he finds in the Carmel community, Meyer threatens to return to Russia. Esther quickly tires of Meyer's despair. Their already strained marriage grows increasingly hostile, and Meyer alienates everyone by leaving shul on the Sabbath to smoke cigarettes. Ben, on the other hand, adjusts well--or so he thinks. Though he's drifting away from his artistic ambitions, he courts one woman and falls in love with another. The first comes from a prosperous Jewish family that offers him a job in the family factory; the second is Polish Catholic, poor and provincial.
Esther pushes Ben to marry the Jewish girl. Ben resists. In debt to a gangster he met in New York, Ben agrees, at the gangster's "request," to help out a doctor who is on the lam for having performed an abortion.
Meanwhile, a family secret begins to leak out in Meyer's correspondence with his older son, who has stayed behind in Russia for reasons known only to Esther. As the details become public, we begin to understand the resentments between Esther and Meyer, and discover why Esther was so determined to leave Russia.
Ben grows restless. Fanny has left home for a special school in Philadelphia. Meyer and Esther's constant arguing wearies him, and the rewards of farming seem puny compared to the promise of a job in Newark, where his Jewish girlfriend's father has proposed buying Ben his own factory. But then his Polish girlfriend surprises him with a life-altering admission.
The novel ends in a conflagration of disillusion, betrayal, and murder, as Ben finds success in the American way.