Category Archives: Immigrant Experience

Review: Daniel Deronda

This is my third reading of this amazing novel. I first read it several years ago, and wrote a review of it on a few book sites, years back. My review remains the same, after my third reading. The only exception would be the fact that I admire the strength, fortitude, and courage Daniel illuminated within the story line. His journey towards becoming an authentic human, a man of morals and religious devotion, is compelling on so many levels.

I finished my third reading two hours ago. Most of my day was spent in prayer, reading The Book of Lamentations, due to Tisha B’Av, meditating, having prayerful moments, and reading.

The societal dynamics, social disparities and comparisons, assimilation and acceptance, bonding within the Jewish community, and the separation of social communities due to religion, are relevant concepts and factors within the structure of English ‘standards’ of the time period. ‘The Jewish Factor’ of a Jew being considered equal to English elitism reigns supreme within the pages.

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Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot is a novel that takes place during the Victorian time period. 

The era is important due to the social mores and standards of the time period. I kept that in mind while reading the novel. The two main characters blend within their lifestyles, ever aware of their standings within the societal realm. Daniel Deronda, has been a ward, since early childhood, of the wealthy Sir Hugo Mallinger. Daniel, along with others in Mallinger’s social network, believes that he is Mallinger’s illegitimate son. Daniel is a sensitive man, and often ponders on his birth, and whether his true heritage lends him to actually being a true English gentleman. During his travels and his wanderings he finds himself in the company of Jews. Within his involvement with the Jewish community, he feels a strong bond, feels comfortable within their realm, and feels a sense of commonality. 

Gwendolen Harleth is the other main character, and she is a self-absorbed individual. She thrives on manipulating others to suit her gain. She is proud of being able to control men with her feminine charms. A blink of her eyes causes men to be enamored of her. This is how she has maintained her standing within her social life. All that comes to an end all too soon, for her, as she is faced with the fact that her family is going bankrupt. 

This causes her to take a stance in order to support herself and family. She eventually gives in and marries a man named Henleigh Grandcourt. She feels that she managed to control him to her beckoning, but little does she know that the reverse situation is, in actuality, the truth. He has manipulated her. She becomes aware of this, and in the end, finds herself feeling extreme guilt over circumstances surrounding her husband. She befriends Daniel, with full display of gaining his attention, in her manipulative manner. He thinks of her constantly, yet, his heart is with Mirah. He tries to ease out of contact with Gwendolen in a sensitive manner.

Daniel Deronda is a brilliant novel, and the characters are all depicted vividly, with all of their flaws and attributes. Even the more minor characters are not so minor, truth be told. For instance, Mirah Lapidoth, a young woman on the brink of suicide is saved by Daniel just as she is about to jump into the Thames River. From there begins a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. Mirah is Jewish, and therein lies Daniel’s initiation and into the Jewish community, its strong traditions, and also its secular offshoots. 

Mirah has run away from her father, and has ended up in London searching for her long lost mother and brother. Daniel’s sympathies has him striving to help her find them, and help her begin a new life. Throughout all of this, he finds himself falling for her, romantically.

Daniel is consumed by Judaism and its ideals, and feels completely comfortable in Jewish surroundings. He can not stay away from the Jewish section, and has cemented himself within the Jewish Quarter with his contacts. His comfort level is fostered by a man named Mordechai, a man of great vision. He practices Kabbalah, and his dreams take him to places others have not traveled. He instills in Daniel the fact that Jews need to have their own homeland, their “Promised Land”. He tries to encourage Daniel to take over his (Mordechai’s) efforts once he has died. He is a sickly man, a man with little time left in life. Daniel is influenced by him.

I enjoyed watching Daniel’s journey and growth, spiritually and emotionally. What he desires most in the beginning of his journey (his proper gentlemanly status) is proven to be what matters less, as his journey takes on new dimensions. He comes into his own, and his identity is cemented with a strong foundation.

The Jewish factors are quite prevalent within the pages of Daniel’s story. His curiosity regarding Judaism is never lost on the reader, and is enhanced through Eliot’s masterful writing and rendering of Judaism. His (Daniel’s) ever need for knowledge regarding Jewish life and traditions is evident, and written with conciseness and accuracy. 

Eliot certainly did her research, and considering the fact that Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, her research entailed a lot of physical work in gaining access to documents and records from libraries to public records, to consultations and so much more. The internet was not even a gleam in the eye of the writer of that era. Considering those factors, Daniel Deronda is a masterful historical novel, a novel that speaks of Judaism in every sense of it, from religious affiliations, to life styles, to food and culture, and so much more. The biblical symbolism is apparent, in my opinion. For instance, I could see an analogy between Daniel and Moses, as far as familial bonds within a family that is not blood-related. 

The majority of the novel seems to be mainly about Gwendolen, and about the upper crust of England. The reader is privy to her mind. Some readers could be put off by the title, but that should not deter them from reading the book. Gwendolen’s arrogance and self-absorption sets the stage for a more serious tone to come. The Jewish society is a separate one, although a social setting of its own, within the scheme of the whole of society and location. It is a totally different concept than the upper class of England. The two social aspects reinforce to the reader the disparity and separation of life style, and the superficial versus the genuine is illuminated. That, to me, was the beauty of the novel.

Once Daniel’s character takes root, it is clear that the story line of Gwendolen, has been written to lead up to the main point of the novel, the Jewish question, the Jewish factor, and the concept of Zionism. Yes, that is correct, Zionism

Imagine, Eliot, a woman of her time period, considering the varied Jewish theories, including the concept of Zionism, and not only that, writing it into the novel, Daniel Deronda. Imagine her debating, through her writing the Jewish question of identity and citizenship. She was a woman whose ideas and theories were spoken of within the pages of Daniel Deronda with precision and accuracy. She was a woman whose standards and ideals regarding the Jewish community were ahead of her time, so to speak, and it reflects in her writing. 

I was extremely absorbed within the almost 800 pages of Daniel Deronda. The length of the book had nothing to do with my desire to continue to read it through to the end. I found it fascinating, enthralling and compelling on so many levels. Eliot’s brilliance and perseverance in penning a novel filled with history, social opposites, ideals and mores, and with a few characters that matter to the reader, is astounding. Her respect for Judaism and its ideals and traditions is made quite clear. Her passion for truth and understanding is evident within the pages, especially within the last third of the novel. 

I applaud George Eliot for her strength and ability to portray individuals, not only at their worst, but at their best, and portray them with religious sensitivity.  Daniel Deronda, is an extremely ambitious novel, a brave one considering the era it was written, filled with historical brilliance through excellent writing. It is a moral story, filled with symbolism. It was controversial during its time period, and has been since then. There are several coincidences, and for me they were relevant, but some might see it differently. If the reader considers the era in which the novel was written, they can better begin to understand the societal context in relation to the time period.

I highly recommend George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Copyright Lorri M. 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. 


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Review: We Were Europeans

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We Were Europeans: A Personal History of a Turbulent Century, by Werner M. Loval, is book that portrays an incredible, personal, family/ancestral journey, both before World War II, and post war.

Loval came from a respected, well off, German-Jewish family, and before the war they were treated with dignity within their community. That all ended beginning on January 30,1933, when Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. From that point forward, Loval’s story takes on dimensions that are precarious and horrendous, as he and his family fight to survive.

He and his sister eventually became part of the Kindertransport to England, while his parents eventually were able to escape to Ecuador, via Siberia and Japan, where the entire family was reunited. The family emigrated to America after the war. Loval eventually emigrated to Israel and played an intricate and highly professional role within the Diplomatic Service for the State of Israel. His religious foundations were strong, and he was involved in the Reform Jewish movement, and played a high profile role within it.

To say I am impressed with the format would be an understatement. I am in awe of We Were Europeans and the way Loval presents it to us. He infuses the pages with incredible documentation, amazing photographs, documents and maps, that enhance the pages of this compelling memoir, adding more drama to the presented depictions of the turbulence. From personal reflections and stories, the pages hold eye witness accounts to history as it happens, through Loval’s writing and presentation of supported evidence and documents.

Loval’s endeavors and arduous research has brought the reader into the depths of the Nazi turbulence, adversity and shocking horrors that overtook Europe during Hitler’s reign. First-hand accounts abound, and Loval leaves nothing to the imagination through his stark imagery. From correspondence to diaries during the haunting war years and afterwards, to diaries and letters during the Six Day War and so much more, the reader is painted vivid pictures of family inspiration during time of crisis. The post war events are just as compelling and intensely stated, as Loval involves himself in trying to get restitution for property owned by his family.

Loval and his family lived their lives to the fullest with a positive attitude, no matter the extreme harshness of their circumstances, no matter how far spread, at varied points in time, the family separation was across the global perspective. The illuminating photographs, documents and word-paintings are incredible testimonies to eras gone by, to familial bonds, to the determination and strength to persevere and survive, both during and after World War II.

We Were Europeans is a book of extreme importance and historical value for historians, for researchers, genealogists, for those who are interested in the Holocaust and World War II, and for those individuals, in general, who want to learn more about the turbulent times depicted within the pages. The intensity of the memoir is beyond imagination and comprehension. It is a powerful statement and testimony, not only to the decades, events and circumstances depicted, but to the Loval family unit. Their story is extremely inspiring, and I highly recommend We Were Europeans, by Werner M. Loval to everyone.

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Review, Copyright Lorri M.

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Grandma Mary and Her Parents

My maternal grandma,  Mary, lost her father as a teenager (she was 14-years old). Her father, Raphael died November 30, 1897, and the death certificate lists food-poisoning as the cause, with a cold and indigestion as contributing factors towards heart failure. He died at home, in Manhattan.  Her mother, Felicia died December 29, 1902, at home, of heart disease (grandma was nineteen-years old). They are both buried at Calvary Cemetery.  I was stunned to learn that they both died before grandma turned twenty.

Grandma was an orphan, both parents deceased by the time she was nineteen-years old.  I now know this is why she was so empathetic and understanding, when my father died, always concerned about me, about my brother, and how we were.  She totally understood, having lost both of her parents by the time she, herself, was only nineteen-years old.  How sad for her, that she lost them both so young.  It must have altered her life immensely, in ways I can’t even begin to understand.  Losing one parent, my father, at the age of 16 was traumatic enough, and I can’t imagine losing two parents within five years.  I cried and cried upon discovering this fact.  May they all rest in peace, together as a family.

Life was hard, the stress of trying to maintain the necessities of life was difficult, often causing heart attacks, and disease, such as typhus or pneumonia, which was rampant in epidemic levels, and many immigrants died early in life due to these factors.  Several ancestral babies died, and I am assuming they might have contracted typhus or pneumonia.  There are other factors  of course, for my great-grandparents dying at the ages they did.

Being an immigrant forged many hardships.  Survival in an unknown world, with new surroundings, caused extreme stress on those who emigrated to America.  Assimilation was difficult, especially for those who didn’t speak English.  I am positive my great-grandparents only spoke Italian  Jobs for immigrants were few and far between, causing additional stress for families trying to maintain the essentials for life, food, shelter, clothing, etc.

There are times I sit and weep, thinking about the life they dreamed they would have, the life they actually had, and how life took its turns on Raphael, Felicia and their children.  I speak to them during those moments, and thank them for their endeavors to begin a new life.  I yearn for them, at times, yearn or long to know them, physically.  Genealogical research often brings up those emotions to those searching for links to their ancestral past.  You become so involved with lives of the past, and each time you find a new piece of data, the puzzle gets filled a bit more.  But, at the same time, you become so emotionally involved in not only the searching but the information received, as well.  It is life-altering in many ways.

After all, you realize that these individuals, these courageous, wonderful human beings, are your ancestors whom you are descended from, and without their emigration, without their lives as immigrants, you would not be here, in America, you simply would not be, at all.  It is difficult to escape that reality, while researching family history.  It is as if they are there, before your eyes, and in a sense they are.  Their DNA runs through my veins.

Original signatures on death, birth, and marriage certificates are intriguing, as well as the information garnered, such as addresses, dates, ages, names, etc.  Reasons for deaths often make sense in the scheme of future generations.  One becomes immediately consumed and involved.  At least I was consumed, and realized the profoundness of their journey from Italy to New York City, and wanting to start a new life, in an unknown world.  New York City was not only a ‘melting pot’, in 1890, but also a city that held extremes for daily existence.

Through death certificates, I realize the extent of the hard childhood my grandma had, losing both of her parents so young in life.  Research has also revealed to me the difficulties of daily life, hour to hour, at that point in time, in New York City.  Difficulties that Raphael and Felicia did their best to overcome, handling the struggles before them.  They somehow managed to fulfill the necessities needed, through long hours of hard work.  They were fighters, warriors of a societal age that often prevented immigrants to obtain a minimal, yet decent standard of living.  They persevered, along with their children.

My grandma Mary was a part of her parents’ struggle.  They made sure she went to school, in an age when education was often seen as a negative.  She worked after school.  Once she graduated, she worked full time as a dressmaker for a clothing company, with her salary helping her family maintain daily needs.

Upon the death of her parents, she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, continuing to work as a dressmaker.  Life was definitely difficult for all of the family members, each one an immigrant.

To me, grandma Mary is a testament to strength, courage and love, for succeeding within the confines of being an immigrant.  I thank her for sustaining the hardships thrust upon her, and her ability to move forward through unknown doors.  I am grateful that she had the tenacity to conquer the strains and stresses life set before her.

Grandma Mary was a warrior, before females were considered to have such recognition.

 

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Italian Immigrants

Having Italian ancestry in my family, books regarding New York City and Italian immigrants are quite popular in my reading genres. I enjoy both the historical fiction books and the nonfiction books.

I finished reading a novel called Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano. The story line takes place during the first decade of the 20th century. The book depicts based on the author’s own Italian immigrant family. The pages are filled with the essence of the hardships of daily living and survival during a harsh time period. Fortitude, desire, and the will to assimilate and conquer the living conditions, crime and social inequalities forced upon Italian immigrants seem to be the basis for the book, along with prejudice of the Italians. I am fascinated with what I have read, so far.

I have read other books regarding Italian immigration, and New York City immigrants, in general. Each book has given me new snippets to ponder.

How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, is an extremely compelling book.

Vita: A Novel, by Melania G. Mazzucco, is another compelling read regarding the Italian immigrant experience.

Openwork: A Novel, by Adria Bernardi depicts three generations of Italian families, and their journey from Italy to New York City.

I also recommend The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

I watched a show on PBS entitled The Italian Americans. It is a two-part four-hour series. It ended last night-February 24th. You can watch episodes online.

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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.

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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.

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