Tag Archives: Jewish Immigrants

“In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song,” by Jerome Charyn

Review by Philip K. Jason

Bellevue Literary Press. 272 pages. Trade paperback $16.99.

A prolific novelist and cultural critic, Charyn has brought together a group of autobiographical and critical essays energized by a distinctive, memorable style at once accessible and brimming with erudition. As the all-American child of parents defined by the immigrant experience, Charyn includes several essays having to do with his Bronx childhood. His parents’ silences were the silences of displacement, and Charyn’s eventually countervailing life in language becomes his ironic emergence from that silence into well-scored, elevating song.

Jerome Charyn – photo by Jorg Meyer

Charyn writes with passionate precision about writers, films and filmmakers, about New York’s marginalized classes, and all manner of cultural icons. He gets under the veneer of icons like Negro League baseball titan Josh Gibson. He celebrates the works of such Jewish writers as Isaac Babel, Henry Roth, the underpraised Samuel Ornitz, and the game-changing Saul Bellow, putting their radically different oeuvres in context. (His essay on Babel, a gem over fifty pages long, dazzles.)

 

 

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  In the Shadow of King Saul

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Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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Immigrant life, assimilation, and conversion issues flavor unique murder mystery

Forgiving Mariela Camacho, by A. J. Sidransky. Berwick Court Publishing Company. 316 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This book has a highly original focus that was first developed in Sidransky’s earlier Forgiving Maximo Rothman. Sidransky is able to intertwine the experiences of various cultural communities: the Dominican Republic, the Dominican section of Washington Heights (upper Manhattan), the neighboring population of Jews, and Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. It highlights the improbable story of Sosúa, a story of desperate Jewish refugees who were given sanctuary in the Dominican Republic beginning in 1938. And, for good measure, there are excursions to Germany and Israel.  FMCfrontcover-HiRes

The author handles these largely unfamiliar relationships by building his plot around a case handled by two New York City police detectives, Anatoly Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez, who are not only partners on the force but also best friends. Their names will immediately signal their ethnic backgrounds.

Anatoly (“Tolya”) was an orphan who somehow made his way to the U. S. His Russian background is presented much more sketchily than Pete’s life in the Dominican Republic (it is detailed in Forgiving Maximo Rothman as is the wartime history of Sosúa). Tolya remembers well his maternal grandfather, whom he had visited in the Ukraine as a boy. That grandfather was the last in the family to be given a Hebrew name.

Tolya identifies himself as Jewish, though the rabbi who is preparing Tolya’s wife Karin for conversion and the conversion of their two sons wishes that Tolya would take action to strengthen his Jewish credentials. Perhaps a rededication. Karin is a former detective who now, on the brink of bringing another child into the world, has found work as the planner of a tribute to Sosúa at a Jewish museum.

Pete has been married for many years to Glynnis, but his heart’s memory brings him over and over again to his thwarted passion for Mariela Camacho, a Dominican beauty whom he courted but who wouldn’t allow him to abandon his commitments.

The novel explodes when a corpse is discovered attached to a diabolical killing contraption – a suicide machine. Pete and Tolya are assigned to investigate; shockingly, the corpse turns out to be that of Mariela. Pete is sick with grief and guilt. Both men agree that there is much about this death that does not look like suicide, and they get their captain to label the case a homicide investigation.

Sidransky

Sidransky

As the novel progresses, the chapters detailing the partners’ investigation play out in counterpoint to chapters that develop the personality and background of a mad genius who turns out to be a serial killer, having used that death machine on numerous occasions. Sidransky skillfully builds an understanding of his mad momentum and his targeting, indirectly, of Tolya – who represents for him (ironically) the good fortune of the Jews who could get out of the USSR. This man, who has taken many names during his depraved life, and whose family had immigrated to Israel by forging Jewish identities, goes so far as to become a patron of Karin’s exhibit. Can you guess where this is going?

This novel, dark in so many ways, is relieved by the “odd couple” humor in the relationship between Pete and Tolya. Their banter is infectious, as is the interplay between their contrasting personal styles as detectives, immigrants, and husbands.

Indeed, the large cast of characters is well-imaged, and each of the many settings is handled with vividness and authority.

For many readers, the lessons in Judaism that Karin receives from Rabbi Rothman and transmits to her sons will be an inspiring highlight – a moving example of the conversion process at work.

Aside from all of its local color, insights regarding immigrant communities, police work, and ethnic/religious identity, Forgiving Mariela Camacho is a riveting thriller with distinctive dialogue and sure-fire pacing.

Sidransky’s reputation is growing fast. The National Jewish Book Awards selected his first novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, as a finalist in Outstanding Debut Fiction for 2013. Next Generation Indie Book Awards selected his next book, Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon, as a finalist for Best Second Novel for 2015. His third “Forgiving” novel is slated for 2017.

This review appears in the February 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Charlotte and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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A soaring cry, a classic expression of the Jewish American experience

Prayers for the Living, by Alan Cheuse. Foreword by Tova Mirvis. Fig Tree Books. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

A major literary achievement, Alan Cheuse’s magnificent novel takes us through three generations of a Jewish American family, revealing an odd mix of dysfunction and accomplishment, belonging and estrangement, sacrifice and betrayal. Minnie Bloch’s story, told from the perspective of her identities as immigrant and grandmother, reaches us through intermediary listeners, visitors whose near silence tempts us to ask questions. However, if we – the ghostly eavesdroppers – can be patient, they will all be answered. Though she protests otherwise, Minnie has all the answers. Though her eyesight is failing, her insight rarely falters. PrayersForTheLiving-forWebNov14

The impact of the novel comes from two centers of interest: Minnie’s arcing, arching voice and her son Manny’s careers. The voice, like the spirited personality behind it, is inexhaustible. In her stream of revelations showered upon Mrs. Pinsker and a few other visitors, she elaborates what others would most likely keep secret about unfortunate familial matters. There is a great need in Minnie to reveal all: the successes of course, but why the frailties and failures?

There is no stopping her soaring cry. When Mrs. Pinsker remarks that she too has a life story to tell, Minnie replies: “I’d love to hear, Mrs. Pinsker, but not now. Now I’m remembering my own. Oi, I remember so hard.” And indeed, she does.

The texture of Minnie’s life and that of her family is built up in arcs of repetition. Crucial memories and images, key words and phrases, are repeated over and over again, gaining significance and force. Layer upon layer, Minnie’s memories grow and expand; themes and variations compound and resound. The voice becomes hypnotic and embracing, releasing as it unfolds the voices of her late husband Jacob, of Manny and his wife Maby, of Maby’s abusive brother Mord, of the rebellious granddaughter who has renamed herself Sadie, and of many others in the sweep of her long life.

All is hung on the identical trademark black suits of Manny, all is illuminated by Manny’s white mane, which bursts upon his head when he is very young, in the aftermath of Jacob’s accidental death. If Jacob is the father, an echo of his namesake who sired the Israelite clan, then Manny – Emanuel – is the assurance that, at least for the rabbinic part of Manny’s adult life, God is with us.

Young Manny studies at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and becomes a successful pulpit rabbi in New York. His is a master of the ordinary things expected of him – the routines of educating, inspiring, influencing committee meetings, and fundraising. His most successful religious service is one in which he needs to present a sermon on the concentration camps. After much agonizing and writer’s block, he offers as his sermon twenty minutes of absolute silence. It’s the high point of his pulpit career. His congregants love it. There are low points too, including one in which he takes a literal and figurative fall.

Gradually, another calling overtakes Manny. That of entrepreneur, investor, and man of business. One business is added to another, and then another: shipping, warehousing, and ultimately major agricultural interests in Central America. Once he redefines himself as a businessman and former rabbi, Manny readily discards the life of the synagogue and traditional observance. How does he make this transition so effortlessly? How deep did it ever run?

The story of Manny enfolded in Minnie’s linked narratives is also the story of his ill-fated marriage to Maby (a family nickname), a beautiful woman overwhelmed by insecurity and alcoholism. She spends way too much of her life in a comfortable rehab center, but when she ventures out in the world – at one point attempting to become a writer – she makes poor choices that lead to new bouts of depression.

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse

Along the way, Manny is drawn to another woman, Florette, a Holocaust survivor.

Both Maby and Manny are weak parents whose emotional absence predicts Sadie’s rebellious behavior. Is she a victim by nature or nurture? Sadie’s traumatic gang rape by college boys is an almost incredible echo of Maby’s rape by her older brother Mord (who later ends up being Manny’s business partner).  Maby’s idealization of a self-seeking writing guru almost predicts Sadie’s infatuation with her super-liberated and exploitative female art teacher.

Looking for encouraging authority figures, mother and daughter succumb to false gods.

We must remember, of course, that these stories and the repeated patterns and voices they contain all go back to Minnie’s memory and her conscious or unconscious mission. These coincidences are no more unlikely than the repeated narrative patterns in the Jewish Bible: older brothers being replaced by younger, parental favoritism warping sibling relationships, and former slaves repeatedly longing for the comfort of their predictable slave lives.

What hath Cheuse wrought? A one-woman show with one character playing many parts? A prose epic of the American Dream corrupted by some kind of insidious moral disease? A portrait of the archetypal Jewish grandmother?  Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.

It also reminds me of Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg’s iconic character who embodied the Jewish-American quest for and realization of upward mobility. Not only the “yoo-hoo,” but also the worship of family.

I expect a long life for this book, though not necessarily an explosion to the top of the best seller lists. It is made of sturdy stuff, esthetically and imaginatively. It requires a patient reader, and it pours abundant riches on such a reader. It may very well take its place among the classic novels of the Jewish American experience.

This review appears in the June 2015 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

 

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A stunning debut novel about loyalty, honor, and identity

A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. HarperCollins. 336 pages. $25.99.

A generation of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet Union countries is coming into its own as a special breed of Jewish American writer. The balance of ethnic identity spans a significant range. Some of these writers seem more Eastern European than Jewish, as might be expected when growing up under a regime that had little tolerance for religious communities. Others seem to treasure their Judaism as a kind of heirloom, but still arrive in the U. S. lacking significant Jewish learning or worship experience. In fact, their American lives often make possible the process of Jewish education and acculturation (as Gary Shteyngart recalls his American Jewish day school years in his recent memoir Little Failure).

In 1979, Minsk-born Boris Fishman came to the U. S. from Belarus at the age of nine. After well-placed work as an accomplished journalist, Fishman’s first novel is putting him on the map in a big way. ReplacementLifeHCc

Slava Gelman, Fishman’s surrogate, works for a prestigious New York based magazine called Century. However, whatever his tasks, he has not yet broken through with an article bearing his by-line. He needs to break through, to prove to his skeptical grandfather – the family patriarch – that his choice of a career was neither foolish nor unmanly. Stava needs, as well, a fulfilling relationship with a woman. The pursuit of these needs springs the action of this unique and brilliant novel, along with the effect of Slava’s grandmother’s death on the family.

The Gelman family and their relatives have become part of a Russian-Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. Inside their community, they are – of course – insiders. Still, they remain outsiders in the larger community of New York City. They admire the abundance of choices that America offers, but they are not able to partake of this abundance on a large scale.

An almost totally Americanized Slava has become marginally connected to his family and his roots. To a significant extent, he is an outsider among them. He is also an outsider, for a complex of reasons, in his workplace community. What good are his writerly aspirations doing him or anyone else?

His grandfather, the ultimate schemer and scammer, has made a reputation as the guy who can get his hands on things that others cannot. His well-played false innocence leads him to hatch a devious scheme to benefit himself, his neighbors, and perhaps even his grandson. What’s wrong with lying for a good purpose?

He comes up with a plan for Slava to fabricate letters requesting war reparations from the German government. While many of the aging Jews in the Gelmans’ Brooklyn community were disadvantaged because of the Nazi regime’s actions during World War II, they had survived the Nazis to lose even more under Soviet repression in the years following the war.

First reluctant and then fascinated with the idea, Slava finds himself going along with it. He is now a creative writer, making up biographies with key incidents that qualify that alleged victims for reparations. His underground fame spreads. Money is offered for his services. His grandfather is, finally, proud of him.

Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman

All goes well until an odd, shrewd inspector corners Slava and starts asking questions.

Just as Slava is lured into one part of his destiny, he is lured into another as well. This time, there is far more upside to it. His co-worker, the quirkily independent Arianna Bock, finds something in Slava to arouse her sympathy and then her passion. She leads him into a romance and also wises him up about the ways of a writing career at Century and beyond.

Perhaps Fishman’s greatest gift is his talent for writing group scenes made out of conversations that couldn’t possibly be real but are totally convincing and revealing. There are several such scenes in A Replacement Life that could be expanded into plays. They are filled with social nuance, familiar pettiness, and (from the perspective of the participants) unintentional wit and humor.

Fishman’s narrative shines with bright metaphors and similes. Describing a woman who has been assigned by a social service agency to assist his grandfather, he writes: “Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.”

How do things work out with the family, with Arianna, with Slava’s career creating fraudulent lives on paper? Well, that’s a long story. Do yourself a favor and read it for yourself.

This review appears in the November 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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