Tag Archives: immigrant life

“Greenhorns,” by Richard Slotkin

Leapfrog Press. 186 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

The six sto­ries in this col­lec­tion explore the green­horn expe­ri­ence in the con­text of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly to New York City, from the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry through the ear­ly years of the Great Depres­sion. Slotkin has based his tales on inter­views he held with fam­i­ly mem­bers who came to the Unit­ed States from Rus­sia and Poland between 1900 and 1921.

Through his fic­tion­al retellings, Slotkin demon­strates how his­tor­i­cal mark­ers shaped and defined the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of immi­grants. In 1905, Jews escaped the lat­est out­bursts of vio­lent anti­semitism in Rus­sia and Poland, and made their way to what many believed would be the promised land. The end of World War II brought aware­ness of the Holo­caust, which many new immi­grants had man­aged to escape. The found­ing of the mod­ern Jew­ish State was anoth­er mile­stone: a pin­na­cle of Jew­ish pride.

Slotkin photo by Burkhardt

Slotkin’s col­lec­tion also explores fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and the gen­er­a­tional gaps that com­pli­cate them. While young­sters often adapt and assim­i­late with ease in these sto­ries, old­er immi­grants are more like­ly to have a dif­fi­cult time, some nev­er find­ing true com­fort in the nation or neigh­bor­hood in which they now live — they nev­er stop being green­horns. One man, back in ​the oth­er side” a promi­nent wheat bro­ker, can­not recon­struct his suc­cess in his new envi­ron­ment: he has lost too much sta­tus, too much con­text for the mean­ing of his life. He becomes a recluse. Oth­ers find ways to fit in, grasp­ing when pos­si­ble the help­ing hand of a cousin already estab­lished or a friend­ly neighbor. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: Greenhorns

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“The Secret of Clouds: A Novel,” by Alyson Richman

Berkley.  384 pp. Hardcover $26.00

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

An exquisite story about how teachers and pupils enhance one another’s lives.

The spellbinding The Secret of Clouds balances timelines and points of view. One narrative follows a young Ukrainian couple living in Kiev during the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986. Katya and Sasha Kransky, one a promising ballerina and the other a science graduate student, are rattled by the calamity and their government’s reaction to it. After an injury severely handicaps Katya’s chances for a ballet career, they find an opportunity to relocate to the United States, settling in a small town on Long Island.

While the novel’s prologue establishes Katya and Sasha’s crumbling world of Chernobyl, most of the book takes us into the Long Island world of the Topper family, where the story is mainly narrated by Maggie Topper.

Thus, author Alyson Richman effectively shuffles between past and present, between two worlds, and between two starkly different female characters. The inherent contrast in these pairings expresses itself through a profound interaction: In her second year of teaching in the Franklin Intermediate School, Maggie meets Yuri Kransky and his parents, Katya and Sasha.


Yuri suffers from a heart defect. He has little stamina and is unable to participate in conventional classroom life. Maggie is asked to teach him one-on-one at his home. As one who idealizes the teaching profession and aspires to its worthiest goals, she cannot refuse.

As one would expect from such a setup, Maggie’s devotion to Yuri becomes a situation in which she is as much the learner as the teacher.

The immigrant Kransky family lives in relative isolation; Maggie, however, interacts with her family, New York area friends, other teachers, and a full complement of students. She also has a boyfriend, Bill, with whom she shares a modest, but distinctive, home.

Through Maggie’s portrait of Yuri’s ups and downs, intelligence, and courage, Richman brings him fully to life. He has a damaged heart but boundless “heart.” Though Katya is understandably super-protective of him and constantly on edge, Maggie convinces her to give Yuri carefully monitored exposure to the classroom and fellow students.

Maggie’s influence on Yuri is balanced by his influence on her, and Richman handles Maggie’s growth as a teacher faultlessly. If there is one element of the book that stands out, it is the respect the author shows for the teaching process and the value of skilled, committed educators. The portrait of Maggie’s colleagues provides a cross-section of teacherly types, but what’s going on in the Franklin school community is good news. . . .

To read the full Washington Independent Review of Books version, click here: The Secret of Clouds

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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A stunning immigrant tale of identity, inheritance, and transformation

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman. Harper. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This novel ties together an exploration of the immigrant experience, the roots of personal identity, and the possible shapes of families. It is an episodic quest narrative that attempts to answer the question: “What makes eight year old Max Rubin so strange?” This is the question that has been growing larger and larger in the mind of Maya Shulman Rubin, the woman who with her husband Alex adopted the infant Max. The quest is a journey to the Montana home of Max’s birth parents, where Maya feels the answer must lie.  Dontletmybabydorodeohcc

For Alex, Max doesn’t seem quite so strange; his reluctant agreement to take the journey grows out of his need to sooth a range of stresses in the marriage. That is, he wishes to satisfy his wife – somehow.

Alex and Maya live in suburban New Jersey. The son of Russian immigrants, Alex met Maya when she came to the U. S. from the Ukraine as an exchange student. They are both children of Jewish parents whose sense of Jewish identity, while strong, does not include active involvement in Jewish ritual or community life. Alex, who had struggled for a defining career, has ended up working for his father’s import business. Maya’s dreams of becoming a chef gave way to a job as a medical technician. Seemingly infertile (we learn late in the novel that their childlessness had to do with Alex, not Maya), she ironically meets breasts daily while taking mammography images.

Maya’s insistent need to be a mother leads them, in their mid-thirties, to adopt. Their steps in taking this action seem flawed – or at least naïve. The Montana couple, not yet out of their teens, needs to meet the adopters, and they deliver the child to the Rubins rather than use professional intermediaries. They give up all rights. It is the birth mother, Laurel, who utters the title phrase: “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.” She has seen how rodeo has torn up her husband.

The point of attack is eight years later. Maya is approaching her forty-third birthday. The Rubins’ situation as a family is not what they hoped it would be. Moreover, there is some kind of wildness in Max. He enjoys sleeping in a tent behind the house, collecting and perhaps consuming grass samples, and communing with animals. He doesn’t fit in at school. He doesn’t make friends. One day, when he is supposed to board the school bus for his return home, he gets on a public bus and disappears.



After he is discovered and brought home, and after professional help toward understanding Max’s behavior proves ineffective, the family begins the journey to Montana.

The 2,000 mile journey is a new beginning (perhaps actually the first beginning) of their American lives, which until now have been highly restricted. This is especially true for Maya, who came to the U.S. when she was many years older than Alex was upon his arrival and thus is not as fully acclimated. Still, they have been living inside of the older Rubins’ immigrant family patterns and still seem like they have not yet grown up.

The journey is an informal education in American openness, as well as other qualities symbolized by the immensity and variety of the landscapes they move through. Once again, it’s like they have moved to a foreign country – but this time they are much faster learners. They are tested over and over again, with mixed success, but always with personal growth. Again, Maya is more dynamic than Alex in these travel chapters, just as she is throughout the novel. Thus her eyes are opened more widely and she learns much more about herself.

An affair assists her education, as does a comment made when she finally engages Max’s birth mother again. (This scene has a dreamlike quality and might be taken as a dream or reverie.) Laurel suggests that Max’s wildness is not some eruption of genetic traits but rather the restless vibes he has picked up from Maya – the true, if repressed, wild one. Though they come from different color palettes, Maya and Max have become profoundly related.

Though the Rubins, returning to New Jersey, are not fully transformed, they seem far more capable of transformation. They seem capable of self-creation – of forging (such a double-edged word) identities more vital than the immigrant cloaks they have been wearing. As middle age approaches, they are finally growing up.

I came to love this book more and more as I stayed in it. The expository matter that prefaces the trip to Montana can drag a bit, though it is necessary. Fishman’s wit is not so fully on display here as in A Replacement Life, but you’ve got to like a guy who knows that the perfect car model name for this quest is the Ford Escape.

This review appears in the July-August 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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Ethnic tension, desperate passion drive young adult romance

Before You, by Amber Hart. KTeen/Kensington. 321 pages. Trade Paperback $9.95.

More and more, writers for the young adult marketplace are crafting powerfully engaging books that signal a change in reader expectations. Although I didn’t have high hopes when I opened this book aimed at the older teen market, I was strongly impressed by its evocative style, its insights, and its literary dimension.

Like her characters in Before You, Amber Hart is courageous. Whether her readers’ high school lives were fulfilling or not, they will admire and enjoy what she has accomplished here. BeforeYourevised

When Cuban refugee Diego Alvarez shows up at Oviedo High School, he seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He is totally uncooperative when Faith Watters, the student assigned to welcome and orient him, attempts her task of showing him around. Each wears a mask of manners, and both need to keep their true natures and feelings hidden. In different ways, both are at once tough and vulnerable. Well, this is a romance: though neither intends this to happen, soon sparks are flying.

Diego has managed to escape from an ugly world in which he has worked as an enforcer for a major Cuban drug cartel. His scars and tattoos reflect his experiences. Handsome and athletic, his is lucky to be alive. However, his reputation had preceded him and a local (Orlando area) gang attempts to recruit him with an unsubtle “sign up or die” approach. He refuses. This is not the life he wants – nor did he ever want it. In Cuba, that life was his only means of protecting his family. His gruff exterior is his defense mechanism.

Faith is a fake good-girl. She dresses tastefully but conservatively, is nice to everyone, and pursues excellence at school. Captain of the dance team, she is also a shining representative of her clergyman father’s values and community status. She lives to meet other people’s expectations, but she hates that life. It’s not really her. The public lie that she spent her junior year studying abroad covers the fact that she was in drug rehab and is still vulnerable to temptations. Her size-to-big clothing helps hide her figure and her tattoos.

Amber Hart

Amber Hart

Faith’s autophobia – her fear of being alone growing out of having been abandoned by her mother –eerily complicates her situation.

Both want – in fact, desperately need – to find their true selves and live their lives accordingly. The course of the novel is their journey toward honesty, openness, and trust that can allow their slowly admitted, deeply passionate love to flourish in spite of societal prejudices and expectations. Ms. Hart manages her portrayal of this journey with exquisite skill. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 6, 2014 FortMyers Florida Weekly and the August 7 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here Florida Weekly – Hart 1 and here Florida Weekly – Hart 2.

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Jamaican-born Lily strives to find her place in “roaring twenties” New York

Lily: Riding the Color Line, by Naomi Pringle. Book-broker Publishers. 307 pages. $20 trade paperback.

It is the middle of the Roaring Twenties when we pick up the story of the Buckley family first presented in Ms. Pringle’s “Ginga’ Root Tea: An American Journey.” Lily, the oldest of the five sisters still living at home, dreams of independence from her parents’ strictures as she navigates the close of her high school years. She also dreams of escape from the poverty that has been grinding the family down. lilycover

Her father Walter, a successful, confident businessman in his native Jamaica, has not been able to transfer his skills and experience to New York City. The move he made in the hopes of giving his children good educations and exciting prospects has not worked out. They live in an overcrowded basement apartment, Walter toiling as a janitor and working a second job to keep them, barely, afloat.

The mixed hues of the Buckley family leave them suspended between the more settled community identities of blacks and whites. Walter is light-skinned, and Lily – who can pass for white – is dancing on the color line – she can pass for white.

The novel opens with Lily getting a fashionable “bob” hairstyle. She knows this decision carries risk, but she is interested in being true to her rapidly emerging sense of self, which includes being fashionable.

Entranced by jazz music and costumed showgirls, Lily becomes a secret frequenter of the Vision Magique. Betty Morrison, mother of Lily’s best friend Carmen, sews costumes for this nightclub. Betty  warns Lily about the dangers of crossing the color line, but circumstances and her own personality lead Lily to drift in that direction.  She is befriended by Gina, the most popular of the showgirls, who acts as a mentor.

When she walks along the mirrored hallway that leads to Gina’s dressing room, Lily automatically takes on a new manner, gliding like the showgirls: “back straight, breasts high, buttocks tight as drum skins.”

The narrative reveals Lily’s gradual loss of innocence and the accelerating allure of Prohibition-era nightlife and entertainment. Seeing no future in the basement apartment, Lily seeks to escape from parental supervision as soon as she can.


Meanwhile, the family’s misfortunes deepen. Payments from investments back in Jamaica are shrinking, and Walter suspects thievery. He must return to look into the matter.  Isabel, whose New York experience has been a prolonged plunge into icy despair, needs to revisit the scene of her social prominence as mistress of 21 Rousseau Road. The trip, for better or worse, will leave Lily in charge of the two younger teenage daughters, while the youngest girls will travel with their parents. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly for March 26, 2014 and the March 27 Bonita Springs, Naples, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Pringle’s Lily

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