Celebrating Jewish Literature: Adjusting to different worlds

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Jewish history is filled with fascinating tales. Sometimes, though, it takes fiction to make these stories come alive: a novel can fill in thoughts and emotions to which historians rarely have access. That’s shown in two recent novels; “Our Little Histories” by Janice Weizman (The Toby Press) offers both a personal and public view of more than a century of Jewish history, while “Ravage and Son” by Jerome Charyn (Bellevue Literary Press) focuses on the emotions and actions of those living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. 

“Our Little Histories” tells its story in reverse chronological order. Beginning in Chicago in 2015 and ending in 1850s Propoisk, Belarus, it portrays the different directions that Jewish lives have taken through the story of three brothers who were separated early in life. The reason for that separation is not revealed until the final section of the novel. The previous chapters move backward in time, telling the stories of different branches of the family: one group in the United States, a second in Israel and the third that remained in Europe and did not survive World War II. Each section focuses on a different character and forces readers to piece together the family connections. (An extended family tree proved very helpful in this.)

In the opening section, Jennifer creates Living Installations for museums: for a short period of time, real people live in recreations from the past and are watched by an ever changing audience. She’s already created Greek, Roman, Inca and Native American installations. Now she’s offered the chance to create one showing what Jewish life in Belarus was like in the 19th century. Jennifer is intrigued with the prospect because her ancestors originally came from that area and she’s never visited. To create the installation, she reconnects with distant Israeli cousins who are now religious and willing to live as their ancestors did – at least, while the public is watching. Watching the installation in Belarus has an unexpected effect on Jennifer and her teenage daughter.

Readers learn of the Israeli branch of the family when Jennifer’s mother visits them during the 1960s. The first member of the family to immigrate to Palestine tells of living on a kibbutz in 1946, noting how many people don’t feel at home in the land because they’ve come from different countries. The upcoming storm – World War II and the Holocaust – is noted in a section where some people still believe that Hitler is an aberration and life will soon return to normal. It also shows how difficult it is for those with money to understand the despair poverty brings. The desire of second generation American immigrants to assimilate is made clear in a story that takes place in Chicago in 1938. A meeting of three cousins in 1896 Belarus clearly shows the different directions the family will take as they question whether they should remain in Europe, emigrate to Palestine or move to the United States.

It is, however, the final story, which takes place in Belarus in 1850, that will tug on readers’ heartstrings as they learn the reason why the three brothers – triplets – were separated. The heartrending choice their mother makes will make readers re-evaluate the other sections of the work, particularly the first section, since it reveals what is missing from Jennifer’s installation: the fear always present in Jewish lives. “Our Little Histories” gains in power since the sum of its small histories are greater than the individuals parts. 

While “Our Little Histories” looks at life on three different continents, “Ravage and Son” has a much narrower focus: the Lower East Side of New York City. Although its prologue takes place in 1882, the majority of the work occurs in the 1920s. The novel deals with the messy, complex world of slum landlords, the Yiddish theater, gangsters who preyed on ignorant immigrants and wealthy uptown Jews who were embarrassed by their poorer brethren. It contains a wide variety of characters – some real and some fictional – to create a panorama of the times.

What plot there is centers on Ben Ravage, an unacknowledged illegitimate son of one of the Lower East Side’s slum lords, Lionel Ravage. After being rescued as a young boy by Abraham Cahan, the real-life editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Ben attends Harvard Law School, but doesn’t practice because his heart belongs to the streets in which he grew up. He takes a job as a detective for the Jewish Kehilla, which helps police the Lower East Side. However, when Ben tries to protect the innocent from the corrupt New York City police force and court system, he makes some serious and powerful enemies who threaten his life. That doesn’t stop him: although Ben knows he can’t change the world, he seeks to help as many individual souls as possible.

But Ben is not the only character featured. Readers learn about the Lower East Side through the eyes of several others. For example, Cahan tries to use the Forward to help the citizens of the Lower East Side. Although he wishes he could rid the area of corruption, he often finds himself focusing on the smaller troubles of its citizens, helping them adjust to America or offering advice for their personal problems. There’s a Yiddish actress who finds fame and is desired by rich and powerful men, but longs for one poor suitor only. The lesbian daughter of one of the rich Jewish financiers causes problems for her family when she prefers slumming and drugs to her father’s social world. All these characters and more have serious flaws, as does the system in which they live. “Ravage and Son” does not offer a pleasant, rosy-eyed view of immigrant life, but it does make readers feel the despair its characters do. In the end, the novel shows people fighting a battle they ultimately can’t win, even as they continue to try to save their world and those living within it.