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Archive for the ‘Jofie’s books’ Category

Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2020

Translated by Frances Butwin; illustrated by Ben Shahn (Crown Publishers 1949)

Who hasn’t seen Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical (later made into a movie musical) based on stories about Tevye the Dairyman by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, aka Sholom Aleichem? Friends recently gave me the DVD, and we watched it again, which inspired me to read the stories in this 1949 edition, which may have been my mother’s, but then again, it may have been my uncle George’s, or my aunt Sonya’s. In any case, there it was, so I read it.

There are twenty-seven stories in all, six featuring Tevye: “Modern Children”, “Hodel”, “Chava”, “Schprintze”, “Tevye Goes to Palestine”, and “Get Thee Out.” These are all narrated by Tevye, the dairyman from the village of Kasrilevka (not Anatevka!), and addressed to Sholom Aleichem; most concern the marriages of his daughters: Tzeitl, the eldest, who loves Motel the tailor (who is from Anatevka, as is Lazer-Wolf the butcher, who would also like to marry Tzeitl); Hodel, who loves a revolutionary and follows him into exile; Chava, who marries a Russian Christian, prompting Tevye to consider her as dead; Schprintze, who falls in love with Aaronchik, a rich idle young man who allows his mother and uncle to spirit him away without so much as a goodbye, leaving Schprintze to waste away and finally take her own life; and Beilke, the youngest, who marries a rich but quite contemptible man. Only Teibel, for some reason, does not have a story. Fiddler on the Roof, of course, is based on the stories of the three eldest; but it also borrows from “Get Thee Out”, the story of how the Jews were forced to leave their ancestral villages and move to the towns. Many, Tevye among them, chose to emigrate instead. Tevye is a memorable character, soft-hearted and more flexible than he would like to be (except in the case of Chava; he really struggles to forgive her for marrying a Christian). The translator writes in her Introduction: “Tevye is unique among Sholom Aleichem’s characters. No other character displays his peculiar blend of innocence and shrewdness, kindliness and iron, weakness and toughness.”

The other stories are mostly about (or are narrated by) the Jews of Kasrilevka, Anatevka, Yehupetz and other villages in the vicinity. They are interspersed among the Tevye stories, just as they were originally published. In “The Man from Buenos Aires”, for instance, the narrator recounts a train trip where he makes a new friend, a mysterious rich man who claims to have made his fortune in Argentina. The narrator is suspicious because the man refuses to divulge what exactly it is that he sells. The story ends inconclusively, with the man saying only what he does not deal in (prayer books), leaving the actual product to the imagine of the narrator and the reader both. In “An Easy Fast”, poor Chaim Chaikin starves himself to death rather than see his children go hungry. And in “Gy-Ma-Na-Si-A”, the narrator’s wife becomes obsessed with sending their son to high school, no matter his questionable academic credentials, the high cost of the school, and the discrimination he faces because he is Jewish. The family impoverishes itself to send the boy to high school, only to have him join a student strike.

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The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People

Posted by nliakos on April 13, 2020

by Oscar Handlin (At Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Co., 1952)

Sheltering in place during the novel coronavirus pandemic, with the public libraries closed (except for e-books. . . more on those later), I have begun reading my mother’s books, unread on my shelves since 1984. This is one of those. It focuses on the immigrants who came to America during the 19th century from the villages of Europe. It received the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in history, so it was a good place to start.

Chapter I, “Peasant Origins”: In this first chapter, Handlin describes the peasant societies of Europe, how they had existed for hundreds of years with few changes and then how they fell apart under the pressures of population growth and changes in land ownership, with the result that many peasants were forced to leave their villages and strike out for new places.

Chapter II, “The Crossing”: Handlin breaks down the immigrants’ voyage into five stages:

  1. over land in Europe,
  2. in the European seaports, waiting for a ship,
  3. on the ship,
  4. in the American seaports where they first came ashore, and finally,
  5. wherever they ended up in America (if not the above-mentioned seaport)

It was a brutal trip.

Chapter III, “Daily Bread”: How these immigrants earned their living once in America. Most of them came with the expectation that they would farm, as they had traditionally in their villages, but this was true only of a “lucky” few; most never managed to escape the cities they first arrived, or if they managed that, they ended up in some inland urban area instead. As unskilled laborers, they worked in factories, they built roads and bridges and buildings, they manufactured clothing and furniture, they did piecework, they labored in the mines. In this process, they created unions to try to improve the terrible conditions in which they worked. There was no safety net; their lives were very difficult.

Chapter IV, “New Worlds, New Visions”: In this chapter, Handlin discusses the contrast for these immigrants between their Old World and New World lives. In their villages, they respected Nature, the spirit world, and magic, and their (mostly) Christian faith was superimposed on the traditional pagan religions of the distant past. In America, they found isolation, loneliness, helplessness, and resignation. Having lost those pagan remnants, they became more dependent on Christianity, and in their uprootedness were sometimes drawn to new sects, while their suffering bred a resistance to change of any kind.

Chapter V, “Religion as a Way of Life”: Here Handlin expands the ideas about religion he touched on in the previous chapter. He distinguishes between peasants, who were mostly Catholic (obviously, with the exception of the English), and the dissenters, who were not of peasant stock and who tended to be either Protestants (more urban) or Jews. The peasants saw their church as a way of life to be re-established in America, but they discovered that American Catholic churches were unlike the village churches that they knew. Those churches, which had been established by earlier French settlers, were different from the Irish, Italian, Eastern European Catholic parishes that the immigrants would establish later. In the meantime, the peasants split into many different sects. Jews too created the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed movements. Handlin says that each new wave of immigrants sought a more conservative worship than it found when it arrived. As a result, religion in the United States never achieved the all-encompassing power/oneness of the Old World church.

Chapter VI, “The Ghettos”: Again, Handlin contrasts the peasant home in the Old World–the place you welcomed friends, celebrated festivals, taught your children, and united your family–with the squalid tenements of the American cities into which the new immigrants crammed themselves. They smelled bad, they were filthy, they were “soul-killing”, and they forced the disintegration of the old ways of life.

Chapter VII, “Fellow Feeling”: This chapter examines the Americanization of the new immigrants: how they formed neighborhood associations and mutual aid/benefit societies, how they built wedding halls, hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged (their tenement homes being inadequate for these purposes). They established newspapers, schools, and theaters based on their language, ethnicity or religion of origin. Later, insurance companies took over the role that the mutual aid societies had played, and the public schools educated most of their children (it turned out to be prohibitively expensive to establish a whole school system for an ethnic group). Ethnic separateness was thereby increased. In the strange world of lonely men, the immigrants had reached out to each other, eager in the desire to have brothers with whom they could dwell. (This is not the first place where Handlin completely ignores women. In his telling, the immigrants were all male. The women and children they brought with them hardly rate a paragraph.)

Chapter VIII, “Democracy and Power”: This chapter claims that the peasants arrived in the U.S. without any experience with or expectation of political power (In the business of ruling [the peasant] did not act, was only acted upon.). American political bosses and machines rarely took immigrant concerns into consideration, and these first waves of immigrants were slow to realize the potential of political activism to address their problems.

Chapter IX, “Generations”: This is the only chapter where Handlin wakes up and realizes, surprise! some of the immigrants were women! He describes the breakdown of the traditional family structure and the pressures that immigration and its associated hardships brought to bear on a marriage. He notes that immigrant men lost power and respect as heads of households while women became more dominant in the immigrant home. Further, he describes how the children who were brought here very young or born after their parents arrived refused to obey their parents and struck out on their own, especially into sports, politics, and (?) racketeering. (Really?) The immigrant (father) was essentially powerless to hold his family together in the old way.

Chapter X, “The Shock of Alienation”: Handlin explains that the immigrants were so changed by their experiences that they would never be able to return: These people, once separated, would never belong again. Not only would they never really belong to their old way of life; they would never really belong to the New World, either–partly because they didn’t want to assimilate so totally, and partly because even had they wished it, it would have been impossible. America was open to immigration in the 19th century. Immigrants were quickly seen as “Americans” and could become citizens after only a short residence. The country was expanding rapidly, and American needed the immigrants to populate (and exploit) the new territories, as well as to build their infrastructure and work in their mines and factories. The children of the immigrants, less pliant/compliant, competed for the same jobs the “native”/”indigenous” Americans wanted (Handlin uses these words to designate the earlier settlers who had lived in American for several generations already–not as we use them now), were an unstable element in American society. However, these immigrants, who often spoke English poorly, were uneducated, and who retained a foreignness about them, were sometimes blamed for societal ills they had nothing to do with–a precursor of that was to come in the next century. The end of the 19th century saw the beginnings of the anti-immigrant movement and, although he doesn’t call it that, the white supremacists. Southerners pushed the idea of racial superiority over the former slaves, while Westerners did the same with the Chinese. Early sociologists blamed the immigrants for all of society’s ills: drunkenness, poverty, crime, and disease. Not surprisingly,the immigrants felt frustrated and disrespected. Some reacted with prejudice against newer immigrant groups or against former slaves. Americans had expected a melding of immigrants into the new Americans, but this kind of total assimilation turned out to be harder to achieve than they once had believed.

Chapter XI, “Restriction”: This final chapter brings to an end the great waves of 19th century immigrants, as the early 20th century saw the enactment of laws restricting immigration from all sources.

Chapter XII, “Promises”: Just a few pages which wrap up the book, more like an epilogue than a chapter. Handlin looks at the absence of understanding between the 19th century immigrant (male, of course) and his son, who can never truly understand what his parent went through, just as the parent can never truly understand the experiences of his children in America. The son frames the immigrant experience as a liberation. Handlin says that the immigrants did not welcome this liberation, which took the form of separation from all that they knew, and subsequently from all that they came to. They were truly an uprooted generation.

Handlin’s language is more formal and elaborate than I am used to. I would have expected that a book like this would abound with specific instances where people’s actual experiences would illustrate the author’s points. Instead, Handlin tends to make sweeping pronouncements, as if every immigrant’s experience was the same as every other’s. The few quotations he includes (in the acknowledgments, he says they “are not quoted verbatim”) are not identified by who wrote them. There are no notes, and no citations. Individuals are rarely named; instead, we get sentences like A famous geologist who spoke often on public questions, a respected social scientist, and a widely read popularizer of history and philosophy were among those by now convinced that a radical departure [from the previous immigration policy] was essential to protect the nation. Would Handlin’s readers have known who he was talking about? I certainly didn’t. He never names a single immigrant, in a book all about immigrants. I found this troubling; I often asked myself why I should believe his pronouncements, especially as they pertained to how immigrants felt and what they thought! Nevertheless, I found some things in the book which reflected my grandfather’s experience and that of the 20th century Greek immigrants I know. So I would not say I didn’t like the book. It just didn’t fit my expectation of how a book like this should be presented–more along the lines of a Ken Burns film. Burns’ use of individuals’ letters and diaries, which never fails to identify the writer, brings history alive in a way that Oscar Handlin’s generalizations can never do.

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Black Narcissus

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2018

by Rumer Godden (Little, Brown 1939)

This one is part of my on-going project of reading all of my mother’s books which I still have and haven’t read (Cf. The Birds Fall Down). She had two by Rumer Godden: this one, and An Episode of Sparrows, which I believe is better known.

Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican sisters who are sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to open a convent with a school, clinic, and dispensary in a building which has been offered to their order by “the General”, the local potentate. Ominously, a group of brothers failed at a similar project in the same location. The offer of the building seems too good to pass up, but at the same time there are numerous signs pointing to failure (so the reader isn’t very surprised when in the end, the nuns depart, leaving little to remember them by).

There are some colorful characters, including Sister Clodagh, the sister-in-charge (I spent the whole book wondering how to pronounce her name); Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, the over-emotional sister whose rash kindness will eventually set the group on the road to disaster; Sister Ruth, “the snake-faced sister”, who sinks into madness; Mr. Dean, the Englishman “gone native” (apparently a terrible thing) who kindly helps the nuns in every way he can, including trying to get them to understand the people they are trying to serve; and Dilip Rai, “the young General”, the eponymous Black Narcissus, who wants to study in England, so he convinces Sister Clodagh to teach him. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, but his presence in the Convent eventually leads to trouble.

I am always astonished at the arrogance of the English (and of Christian missionaries) who believe that they have everything to teach the inhabitants of other lands, and nothing to learn from them. (Mr. Dean is the exception to this unfortunate tendency.) In this novel, Rumer Godden seems to be saying that some other cultures are impervious to Western teachings, although some of her characters refuse to believe this.

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The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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My Mother’s Books

Posted by nliakos on February 3, 2016

Sometimes I feel guilty about always going to the library for books when I have so many unread ones at home, like the ones on these shelves, most of which were my mother’s. (I have read a few of them, like A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, but not the majority.)

I am currently reading A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I got it from the library.

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