Category Archives: Immigrant Experience

Review: Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel

Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, revolves around the Nasmertov family, who have emigrated from Odessa, a city by the sea, to Brighton Beach, another city by the sea. Brighton Beach was often called “Little Odessa”.

The comfort level of the area is one reason the family chose the location. An immigrant from Odessa could find anything that their homeland offered, in Brighton Beach. From food to furniture to household items to clothes and material goods, it could all be had.

This very fact is what held the elders of the family within its fold. It is what prompted them to convince their son, Pasha, to emigrate from Odessa. Pasha, on the other hand, procrastinated, and waited until the last minute.

His role in the book is one of a man who doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything in life, positive or otherwise. He lags behind in everything. He doesn’t quite get the situation or the city he has arrived in, and has no desire to find out the aspects of life within the realm of Brighton Beach.

The story deals with the way that life is perceived during a time of assimilation. It brings the reader snippets of the procedures to assimilate, and also yearnings for what once was in the homeland. The desire for change does not necessarily overrule the comfort of what the homeland held in a person’s daily life.

The reader is taken on a twenty-year journey through the Nasmertov family’s treks to fit in, to understand the cultural divide between homeland and their new land. The journey is humorous at times, but only to the extent of familial actions, and also how they are viewed by those around them. The humor is more of an enhancement of what it means to survive in a country so unlike the one you emigrated from.

Nostalgia is a strong undertone within the pages. Comfort levels of every aspect is depicted. Familial bonds do not necessarily provide the comfort one needs.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is filled with descriptions of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, that one can capture through their five senses. The novel is also an examination of the immigrant and their experiences and endeavors to fit in, despite strong memories of the past.

I enjoyed reading about the cultural issues, and enjoyed the word-imagery regarding the beach cities. I am extremely familiar with those cities and with the cultural aspects depicted in the story. I, myself, have fond memories of Brighton Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The novel transported me back to times past.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish History, Jewish Immigrant, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Review: The Gates of November

Chaim Potok’s The Gates of November is an extremely intense non-fiction book, written about a Jewish family. The book delves into the father/son relationship that Potok is well known for in his books.

Solomon Slepak is an old-school Russian Jew, a diehard Bolshevik. He became a Marxist when he emigrated to the America, and then returned to the Soviet Union. He was a stubborn and difficult man, and became a staunch and renowned Communist Party member, despite the fact that he was Jewish. Solomon Slepak resists the ideals of his son, Volodya, who is a “refusenik”, and basically disowns him.

Volodya sees what is occurring in the Soviet Union and wants no part of it. He wants to take his wife and two sons and emigrate to Israel. Thus he begins the process of paperwork and documentation. His bid to emigrate is refused, and he and his wife, Masha, become activists, working to try to help other Jews who are refused permission to emigrate, under Josef Stalin’s relentless rule.

Due to his activities, he is sent to a remote part of Siberia, where the conditions take their toll on his health. Masha asks for permission to be with him, and is granted such. He is exiled for over five years, under the harshest of conditions, not only weather, but food and daily sustenance and necessities (this articulation is putting it mildly).

Once he returns home, he tries to seek work, and finds menial jobs here and there, that don’t last for any length of time. He applies for permission to emigrate, once again. The process drags on for years, and we are given an overview of the social, political and diplomatic events and results during the years that go by, while he waits for a positive outcome.

I could articulate more on The Gates of November, but I suggest you read it yourself in order to grasp the depth of the story. The Gates of November is quite extreme in detail. Potok has shown us the degrees people will go to in order to manipulate others by leaving out none of the horrible events or descriptive word images.

Potok infuses the intensity of the time period under Josef Stalin’s rule. He details the depth of life under the most adverse and harshest of circumstances within the confines of the brutal Stalin reign. His book is based on personal accounts, taped and written interviews, videos, etc., in order to bring exactness to The Gates of November. It is not an easy book to read, due to the brutally detailed circumstances and events. But, it is a book most definitely worth reading, not only in comprehending the historical aspect regarding Jews under Soviet rule, but for the ongoing father/son relationship and family dynamics that Chaim Potok always manages to write so brilliantly about.

The Gates of November, by Chaim Potok,  is a masterful telling of Jewish familial life and dynamics under extreme social circumstances. It is both horrific and inspirational, and brings to the forefront the degrees of determination people have in order to obtain their goals. I highly recommend it to everyone.

All photography, writing, poetry, etc. is my copyright and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish History, Jewish Immigrant, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Non-Fiction

Lorri M. Review: How the Other Half Lives

howotheotherhalflives3 How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis, is an astoundingly negative testament to New York City and its history, and to all of the immigrants and individuals whose hopes were enveloped, and often dashed, within the suffocating environment of the tenements and slums.

From Europe to Asia and the Middle East, immigrants from all countries were shepherded into unbearable survival conditions. They came to America hoping to have a better life, and the life they led was often worse than the one they left behind. The slum environment encompassed the worst possible lifestyle one can imagine

The living conditions described within the pages are appalling, and even more so when it is noted that landlords often forced labor upon their tenants. In other words, I will only rent to you if you will work for me, behind closed doors. This was an accepted form of behavior, and left the tenants with less than dignified circumstances. The environment was difficult and demeaning enough, never mind the added indignity of having to work almost twelve hours a day for your landlord.

Not only were the rooms that they lived in infested with vermin of all shapes and sizes, but families, individuals and strangers were more or less forced together in extremely close quarters.

The magnitude of the deplorable housing and working conditions is mind-boggling to this reader. I knew that life was harsh and difficult, but Riis brings the reader an in depth look into the horrific conditions forced upon the immigrants. His studies and photojournalism speak volumes to the squalor thrust upon the lower economic people. There weren’t too many choices for those seeking employment and housing.

Yes, there were choices, but not many, and finding the decent surroundings was extremely difficult for most, if not impossible. How the Other Half Lives opened my eyes to the worst of humanity, humanity and humiliation right under our noses, in the heart of New York City during the late 1800s.

How the Other Half Lives is intellectual, intense and compelling. It is written with honest assessments, forthrightness and shocking depictions. Riss’ documentations were his effort to bring forth the deplorable conditions of the slums and tenements. It is not a read for those with sensitive stomachs.

The enormity of information which Jacob A. Riis compiled through documents, his own documentation (both written and photographically), interviews and questionnaires, is astonishing. The magnitude of his project is all-encompassing, and that he was able to accomplish what he did, in the late 1800s, is masterful in every aspect.

As an aside: Some readers might find this book boring, and find the grammar, in some cases, to be difficult to digest. When reading it, one must try to remember the time frame that the book was written in, and the varied dialects of the immigrants. Not everyone spoke English, and those who did, were often speaking with heavy accents, broken English, and not necessarily schooled in the English language.

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Immigrant Experience, Lorri's Blog, Non-Fiction

Lorri M. Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

thegolemandthejinni I have been busy reading. I don’t normally read a book in this genre, but from the first page I was wrapped within the story. The 496-page book The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, by Helene Wecker, is quite unique and extraordinary, and for a first novel, I thought it was extremely well-written. I would rate the novel 3.5 stars, with five being the highest, mainly due to the historical background.

It is a story, as the title states, about a golem and a jinni. The novel is a combination of historical fiction, fantasy, superstition, and so much more. The golem is a super-strong, clay creature in female form that was created for a man who is a withdrawn person, and can not seem to find a wife, a woman who wants to be married to him. He decides to have her created to specific specifications. He takes the golem with him, when he departs for New York City from Europe. Her “master” dies on the ship, and she disembarks in New York City. She meets a Rabbi, who takes her in, knowing she is of the “earth”. She begins her “life” with Jewish roots.

The Jinni has managed to escape out of the lamp he has been held in for over one thousand years, due to a tinsmith breaking inadvertently creating an opening. He is a jinni that has been imprisoned within the walls of the lamp, and comes out in human form in New York City. His origins are Arabian Syria, and through fire as his force, he must stay away from water, especially rivers and rain. The two of them eventually meet, and their unusual friendship begins.

Their relationship develops, each one a stranger and immigrant in a new land. Each one not actually human, yet each one takes on human qualities. The story envelops Arabs, Muslims and Jews within the pages, not in a conflicting manner, but in acceptance of each other and their cultures. That, in itself, is worth the read. The communities of Little Syria and the Jewish sector, blend together, and the reader is given scenes of life, not only in the two communities within New York City, but of 1898 New York City just before the turn of the century. The writing of the scenarios by Wecker is fantastic! Wecker is masterful in her descriptions of New York City at the end of the 19th century. Her ability to illuminate the streets filled with carts, horses, trolleys, architecture, people from all over the world, shops, and daily life is impeccable. She captures the very essence of olde New York City. The reader can visualize her portraits, inhale the aromas, hear the noises, and feel the essence of city life on a daily basis. Her minute details breathe life into each sentence, each page.

The fact that the Golem (Chava), and the Jinni (Ahmad) are basically immigrants learning to assimilate and cope with every day living in realms they don’t understand is not a new concept, in reality. But, within the fact that they are not human, not only do they have to try to blend in within their environment, but also have to try to appear to be human, with human mannerisms, actions, and qualities. Chava is bright and clever, always aware and cognizant. Jinni is mocking and arrogant, yet still trapped in human form. Chava is constantly watching and learning, trying to adapt. She is sensitive, and trusting, trying to find independence. Within that sphere, she must always remind herself not to show her physical strength. The Jinni can take on human form, and within that abilty, he must be cautious of his warmth, his sexual desires, his inability to feel emotions or understand others. He is self-absorbed.

There are other characters that play into the story line. From the Rabbi to the bakery owners, the tinsmith who lets Ahmad work in his shop to the ice cream man, people come and go within the pages, but all are integral to the story line. Cultural barriers are opened, and acceptance is gained by one community for the other. There are back stories, as the novel jumps back and forward in time, but not in a manner that the reader can’t keep up with. The back stories are as important as the current time period.

The supernatural, magical creatures, superstitions, Kabbalah all combine in one incredible novel. Some of it lends the reader to disassociate their non-belief, but that is the beauty of the story that Weckler has written.

The human condition and efforts to survive in an unknown land is brilliantly brought to the forefront with sensitivity and clarity. Many questions were brought to my mind: Is it worth the effort to try to overcome the challenges of cultural mores a nd realities? What is freedom? What is enslavement? Are we really slaves to our environment, or a slave to a former world with old and traditional ideals? Are we product of old and new? What is assimilation, and does it require mimicking those around us, or letting others manipulate us into what they want us to be? These and so many more questions were food for thought.

Within the pages of this fantasy and adventure story we see life through the eyes of those who are trying to find themselves within a strange, and sometimes hostile environment. Life is depicted in all of its beauty and ugliness, with the positives and the negatives. New York City is illuminated through vivid word-imagery, people and their personalities are excellently depicted. Cultural mores are drawn together, showing the similarities within both the Syrian community and the Jewish community. Each culture wants the same for their own kind. The human situation and all it encompasses are woven within the tapestry of the pages within The Golem and the Jinni.

Helene Wecker is masterful, in my opinion, in her ability to portray the characters within the varied settings and cultural aspects. I especially enjoyed the historical aspects of The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, within the realm of an adult fairy tale!

May 20, 2013 11 Sivan, 5773

All rights reserved © Copyright 2007 – 2013 – All Rights Reserved – No permission is given or allowed to reuse my photography, book reviews, writings, or my poetry in any form/format without my express written consent/permission.

6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Lorri M. Book Review: Bearing the Body

bearing the body Bearing the Body, by Ehud Havazelet, is an intense look at family dynamics and the after-effects of the Holocaust in relation to the silence of the survivors, survivors trying to quietly assimilate in a new environment. Often times the events of the past are so horrific and traumatic, that they are difficult for one to bear. Havazelet has an deep comprehension of this.

Dysfunction reigns, and rains, heavily, through the clouds of family dynamics. Silence resounds loudly, echoing fragments of the past, of the Holocaust. Assimilation and trying to forget one’s past affects the children of survivors, in more ways than one can imagine. This novel depicts that dilemma. It is a story of survivors passing their burdens to the next generation to bear, within their bodies, both emotionally and mentally, not to mention the physical consequences of that decision. Secrets are kept, yet those very secrets are what has caused family rift, family anger, family emotional separation and lack of unity.

Sol, the father, is a Holocaust survivor, and a man who is silently carrying the burdens of the past. Due to his silence he is subject to strange behavior. Daniel, the eldest son, has unexpectedly died. Nathan, the youngest son, is a boy in a man’s body. Nathan is stuck in time, and can’t seem to evolve from his childhood. He has hang-ups, including use of marijuana, alcohol, and has sexually obsessive issues. He is a womanizer, and his life revolves around his sexual urges and impulses, and his desire for immediate gratification, no matter the cost. One despicable act, in the first few pages of the book, cost him his relationship with his girlfriend. He doesn’t seem to get the reasoning, though, and keeps phoning her to try to win her back. He is in denial, and won’t face the truth of the situation, and the resulting consequences of his actions.

Sol writes to strangers, family members of those murdered in the Holocaust, in order to express to them some form of sympathy and condolence. Yet, he bore the burden of silence, choosing not to reveal to his sons the facts of his surviving the Holocaust. He keeps a constant foot in his old world, while simultaneously keeping his other foot rooted in Queens. He is a man constricted and restricted, emotionally and verbally. He is unable to tell his sons that he loves them, much to the chagrin of his wife. His silence has kept him from moving forward, causing disharmony within the family unit.

Sol and Nathan have traveled to San Francisco to find out what caused Daniel’s death. While there, Sol becomes hospitalized. Nathan resorts to alcohol, denying and pushing his father’s illness to the background of his mind. Sol eventually leaves the hospital, alone, due to Nathan’s drinking binge.

During one scene in the novel, Sol carries Daniel’s ashes up the steep and hilly streets of San Francisco. Bearing the body of his son, bearing the bodies of his family members who were Holocaust victims, bearing the bodies of so many souls, bearing his own body with its aging medical problems, bearing the burden of loss, bearing the lack of verbalizing his love for his sons. So much to bear in one human body.

There are no right answers to the questions that the Havazelet’s writing evokes. He writes with sensitivity, ever aware of the frailty of humans, ever conscious of the Holocaust and of the repercussions and consequences of the survivors’ choices. Havazelet has written a novel of family dynamics, a sobering and serious-toned novel, and one not to be taken lightly. Many readers might not like the tone, like the realistic portrayal of a family on the verge of disassociation, not only from each other, but from life in general. It is a difficult story to become involved in, and the content might be misconstrued by some readers. It is a dreary book, a book that is burdensome. In my opinion, that is what Havazelet is trying to convey…the burdens of the body, carried by not only Holocaust survivors, but the generations to follow. History has colored the lenses and emotions of the Nathan and his brother, filtered by the lack of communication from the parents. Havazelet dramatically makes the reader aware that the cycle continues, and will continue, unless it is somehow broken.

Havazelet is definite in the fact that one should not be silent. Yet he isn’t judging those who are. He is aware of man’s faults, and of man’s weaknesses, and it is apparent in his writing. He is emphasizing that one must bear witness, because it is extremely necessary for family members to realize their familial history. It is necessary for them to try to come to terms with the past, in order for them to move forward. Grandparents and parents must find a way to tell their grandchildren and children about the Holocaust. Their experiences must be carried down through the generations. Their stories shouldn’t be left in the caves within the mind and soul to fester, causing unhealthy and extreme emotional outlets. In my opinion, that is Ahud Havazelet’s message, and he delivers it through intense word images, and through masterful writing, in the pages of Bearing the Body.

May 2, 2013 – 22 Iyyar, 5773

All rights reserved © Copyright 2007 – 2013 – All Rights Reserved – No permission is given or allowed to reuse my photography, book reviews, writings, or my poetry in any form/format without my express written consent/permission.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Holocaust/Genocide, Immigrant Experience, Jewish Immigrant, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Novels

Lorri M. Book Review: In Case We’re Separated

incasewereseparated In Case We’re Separated: Connected Stories, by Alice Mattison, gives the reader thirteen stories that delve into family dynamics. From immediate family members to extended family members the book is relayed in stanzas.

Each person within the familial realm is depicted and connected through specifics. That these specifics are basically ordinary can be deceiving to the reader. From decade to decade they carry these with them. The fact the characters are all Jewish immigrants connects them, but that is the primary connection that the reader can readily identify. There is more to their bonding, their caring for each other, than the eye can see.

Bobbie Kaplowitz along with her parents, sisters, and other family members demonstrate the emotional roller coaster within the family unit. Logic does not necessarily work within the infrastructure, and her sisters, Sylvia and Fanny are prime examples of that, along with the other members of the clan. Time and place might lead them in different directions, but in the end, they depend on each other, no matter what dire situations arise.

One feature that had me a bit frustrated was the fact that the stories bounce back and forth, and are not in chronological order. That said, I feel it worked within the pages of In Case We’re Separated: Connected Stories. The movement back, and then forward, through the decades demonstrates family individuals and their floundering moments, and represents life itself. Problems exist, often without a solution. Family units are often in a state of disconnection, upheaval and dysfunction.

Familial dynamics are not set in concrete, and neither is life. Emotions and thoughts run the gamut from one day to the next. Events, communications and connections take us from one extreme to another, often spanning several years. Yet, within the framework of time and separation, self-identity and acceptance of each other creates bonds that can not be broken.

In my opinion, that is the point of the thirteen stories contained in Alice Mattison’s book, In Case We’re Separated: Connected Stories.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish Immigrant, Lorri's Blog, Novels