The ProsenPeople

My Father’s Letters

Friday, June 23, 2017 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

After my mother died six and a half years ago, at 84, my father did not want to live in their house alone. They had lived in a small house near Chicago for fifty five years, and raised two daughters there. He came to live in New York with me for a few months, and my sister and I had to decide what to do about the house.

He wanted to move to a senior community in the same town where he’d lived. He didn’t want to spend time in the old house or sort through possessions. They reminded him too much of my mother. My father didn’t say this, but it was clear that the house, which had been a happy place, was full of sadness for him now. After she died, he wandered around the house in a way he never had when she was alive or he just sat in the kitchen. The house felt empty of her presence, yet somehow full of her presence.

My sister and I consulted with him, but she and I took over the task of selling the house. We had to find a realtor, set a price, and prepare the house for sale.

This was a difficult time. We were all grieving my mother. But the task of dismantling the house had to be completed and done quickly. My father moved to an apartment in the senior community, a trial, to see if he would like living there. In the meantime, my sister and I began to clean the house, go through closets, drawers, cabinets, shelves, our parents’ lives. There was so much emotion and discovery. Fifty-five years’ worth of possessions were crammed into the rooms.

As a writer, I find that my emotions sometimes make their way into fiction. This doesn’t always happen, and I often imagine emotions, but it happened with the house. In my new collection of short stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, there are two stories about a parent’s death and cleaning out a family home, “Relocation” and “Excavation.”

I was astounded by the things we found in my parents’ home: cards, letters, invitations from sixty years ago, war savings bonds, old photos, old clothing—even my mother’s home-made wedding dress. So much family history. I imagined other objects one might find and other scenarios; these made their way into the stories. The stories are fiction. What is true about them, though, is the emotion—the feelings of loss, letting go, the discovery of a parent’s past that a child may not have known about.

Over the course of months, my sister, some cousins, my children, and I cleaned the house. In a small room in the basement, my father’s office, we found a bulging manila envelope in a pile of papers. Inside the envelope were letters he’d written home from the army during World War II. Some were written on thin pieces of paper, airmail stationary, in his tiny scrawl. He wrote to his mother, sisters, and brother, sometimes just to a sister, about what it was like to be a soldier at that time in history and time in his life. I discovered he wrote beautifully.

My father was a quiet man and often listened when in a group of people. He had a great sense of humor and intelligence. He owned a wholesale store in Chicago where he sold men’s clothing and later was a manufacturer’s representative for a company that imported men’s clothing. The family story is he had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his father died when my dad was seventeen. My father helped support the family then and took over the small dry goods business.

He was responsible, smart, informed, practical, nurturing, and devoted to the family. We all understood that in the hierarchy of importance, he felt family came first. He knew about politics, facts, figures, history, and enjoyed music and theater, but he did not talk much about emotion. He did, however, in the letters.

The letters are sitting in the bulging envelope in a file cabinet in my apartment. I have read only a few of them. He died four and half years ago; the loss had felt too fresh. Those I’ve read offer a glimpse into a part of my father he did not talk about.

I didn’t, of course, know him when he was a young adult, but his voice, hopes, disappointments are there on the pages he wrote home. The war, history, and politics are on those pages, too.

“I read years ago that every letter has two lives,” a character in my story collection says, “One in the writer’s mind, and the other that the reader gives to it.”

I’m ready to read my father’s letters now, to give them their second or, perhaps, third life. Who knows what I will find or the emotions that will arise as I read them, the emotions I will discover. Perhaps in some form, some manner, they will make their way into fiction someday, too.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, which was the winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her newest book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

Researching and Writing Short Stories

Monday, June 19, 2017 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

One of the pleasures of writing is doing research about a subject that makes its way into fiction. My new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, is set in the contemporary world, but even so I had to do research for the book. I needed to learn about the characters’ professions and find facts about the locales where stories take place. Two stories refer to World War II and Holocaust survivors; I had to be sure the details were correct.

I wrote the stories over time. Compiling them into a book was a different process from writing a novel or individual pieces. The stories in the collection aren’t linked, and I needed to make sure each story, character, and profession was unique.

Much of what happens in fiction is serendipity, unanticipated, no matter how carefully a writer plans. A story idea changes as I write and is influenced by the characters, my imagination, what I see and hear in the world, and the research I’ve done.

And my research can become part of a story, often in unexpected ways.

“A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” the last story in the new collection, is narrated by a Jewish woman. Her cousin marries an Episcopalian minister. The story is about intermarriage and how love changes over time. At the end, the narrator sits in an Episcopal church during a funeral service. I had once been in an Episcopal church during a service and was fascinated by the ritual. As a Jew, though, I’d felt like an outsider, especially when the congregation went to the front of the sanctuary for communion, and I stayed seated. I didn’t know enough about the service to describe the details accurately in the story—didn’t understand the order, what a priest might say, and when the congregation would rise and sing.

After I wrote the story, I called an Episcopal church in New York, explained my questions to the woman who answered, and she directed me to a sacristan. He told me what happens at an Episcopal funeral service, and also about the Liturgy of the Eucharist, theology, the prayer book, and what a sacristan does. He suggested resources on the Internet and the prayer book. We looked at some together on our computers. We talked for a long time about faith, G-d, life, death, the lack of control in the face of death, the service and its intent. I had assumed he would give me a dry account, but the conversation was full of substance, spirituality and hope; we compared the Episcopal and Jewish traditions.

His descriptions were poignant, lifted me up, and so in the story, the Episcopal service lifted up the narrator. That section of the story had ended on a negative note, but after I spoke to him, I rewrote it. I was able to include a correct chronology of the service and to end on a note of farewell and joy, just as I’d heard in the man’s voice.

“Bare Essentials,” another piece in the collection, is about love, divorce, and an affair. In the story, the narrator tries to understand what strengthens or weakens relationships. I decided she would edit medical research papers for a journal, studies about bacteria, Campylobacter or C. difficile. I did research before I wrote the story and learned about the ways bacteria behave and interact with a host. This became part of the narrative. Early in the story, the narrator says, “I know that a hundred trillion good bacteria call the body home. Even the mouth has several species of bacteria…The body is like space or the ocean, a vast unknown, like the mind. Like a relationship.” Later she tells the reader, “People are, in the microscopic regions of the heart, not so different from bacteria…Some are resilient. Others disappear in the struggle to survive.”

Bacteria became a central metaphor, woven throughout the piece. The story developed in a direction I didn’t anticipate because of what I’d learned.

The characters in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life have a variety of jobs and life experiences. There are lawyers, real estate agents, Holocaust survivors, doctors, businessmen, a relocation expert, teachers, an employee of the United Nations, a postal worker, rabbis, and others. Stories take place in Poland, New York, Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Vienna, and Michigan. In my research, I found details for the settings. I learned about the characters’ jobs and professions so I could add descriptions to give the characters authenticity.

This was both hard, exacting labor and joyous work. I felt as if I was an actor or as if I had experienced all these jobs and lived the different lives in all the various places.

As I researched and wrote the stories, I discovered that the act of writing can open up new worlds not just for the reader, but for the writer as well.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, which was the winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her newest book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5776

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on last year's list, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5776.

1. The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Though the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri




One of the most compelling contemplations of faith—a thoroughly Jewish faith, and the faith of a writer in his own work—which might be the same thing—to fly under the radar, Avi Steinberg’s sophomore memoir is as profound as its premise is bizarre. To study Joseph Smith’s life and legacy is, for Steinberg, a refreshing reflection on the Hebrew Bible, our hero’s childhood in Jerusalem, the nostalgia for belief of his youth.

2. The Book of Numbers: A Novel

Joshua Cohen’s brilliantly unsettling imitates-life bend of fiction hits full force with his latest novel. Playing with science fiction, technology, and identity crisis The Book of Numbers traces the rambling paths of contemporary quests for forgiveness and redemption that emerge when titan of the Digital Age contracts a freelancer who shares his name to write his biography, all in Cohen’s signature engrossing, thoroughly Jewish-postmodern voice.

3. Made in Detroit: Poems

Marge Piercy dedicates an entire section of her nineteenth collection of poetry to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the turn of the Jewish year in stirring imagery and recurring meditations on family, love, and wishes and failure to be better next year.

Apples and honey for the new year
but you are my year round sweet
apple. The apple of my eye, apple
of temptation and delight. My honey:

I was never truly happy before you.
I was never truly whole before you.

4. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and
the Trial of the Nazis



This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, revisited in Tim Townsend’s riveting account of U.S. Army chaplain Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran clergyman assigned to minister to the Protestant defendants tried and imprisoned in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice following World War II. The story is a fascinating history of America’s military chaplaincy, the Lutheran Church and its mission in the United States, and the jurisprudential and journalist community encouched in postwar Germany—as well as a compelling biography of Gerecke and a respectful examination of the members of his flock awaiting condemnation. Besides being my go-to recommendation for a nonfiction read, Mission at Nuremberg is a fascinating study of confronting evil, religious compassion, and the impossible question of what redemption means for the Nazi arbiters of the Holocaust.

5. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined
House in France



Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir of rooting about her family history in attempts to uncover the secret that separated her grandparents half a century ago is a reflective work of self-discovery and rumination on reconciliation. Get a taste of the book and its author with Miranda’s Visiting Scribe posts on questioning Holocaust survivors about their past and the “madeleine moments” she shares with and observed in her grandfather.

6. After Abel and Other Stories

A richly provocative perspective to carry in rereading the Torah afresh starting next week, Michal Lemberger’s collection of nine heartbreaking stories imagines the experience of the women of the Bible, translating their traditional depictions as virtuous, villainous, or simply present into human actions and responses to the experiences and events they witness without voice in the original text. Also a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople, Michal shared her fascination with the story of Lot’s Wife, the narrative struggle of turning King David into a villain, and what the Lifetime adaptation of The Red Tent got wrong with the Jewish Book Council “way back” in 5775.

7. Thresholds: How to Thrive through Life's Transitions to Live a Fearlessly and Regret-Free Life



The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of transition in the Jewish year and within. If you’re looking to embrace this moment of spiritual transmigration beyond the customary liturgy and ritual practices, embark on the personal examination of self in time and place with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch’s mindful guide to discovery.

8. Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker

Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering present a graphic narrative of the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican marrano Benji Melendez to establish a truce between the warring gangs of the Bronx. Alongside Melendez’s discovery of his crypto-Jewish heritage and return to the hidden religion of his ancestors, Ghetto Brother is an absorbing true story of unlikely reconciliation and the birth of Hip Hop.

9. How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

Certainly you recognize David Gregory from his career as a former NBC newsman and Meet the Press moderator, but you might not know how his strong Jewish identity instilled from his upbringing developed into belief over the course of a decade of study with an Orthodox Jewish scholar. Prompted by a question from George W. Bush during David’s assignment as chief White House correspondent, How’s Your Faith? considers the “ Unlikely Spiritual Journey” from one of television journalism’s most recognized faces.

10. Days of Awe: A Novel

You name your book Days of Awe, it pretty much has to be on this list. While the novel does not overtly address the Ten Days, it spins around themes of past wrongs, forgiveness, and the rending process of beginning anew. One of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribes over the Ten Days of Awe 5776, read Lauren Fox’s entries on The ProsenPeople here.

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Family Histories and Fiction

Friday, December 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about saying Kaddish for her mother and also shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on my family history.

When I was growing up, though, I knew only the broad outlines of that history. My paternal grandparents came from Lithuania and met in Chicago. I knew very little about their lives. My grandfather had died when my father was seventeen. My grandmother didn’t speak about the past except to tell us that we were related to a great, intellectual family, The Katzenellenbogens, and to the teacher of Albert Einstein. She didn’t talk about her parents or siblings or life in Europe.

I knew more about my mother’s family. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles all came Russia. Our small house was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Though I’m a second generation American, I often felt as if I had a foot in each world then, the old and the new. My great grandfather had been murdered in a pogrom. I didn’t know how or when.

When I was in college, my cousins and I decided to talk to my mother’s family about Russia. We gathered relatives in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions. We were riveted by stories of hardship, persecution, and flight. The discussions were passionate; people disagreed about the details of what had happened. My great uncle, a man in his late sixties, described his father’s murder in Russia. As he did, my uncle cried. That moment stayed with me.

I never learned more about my father’s family. I knew I was fortunate to have learned about my mother’s history. I knew, too, I wanted to write about an immigrant family in the 1920s. But I wrote short stories about other subjects, a collection of stories, Second Language.

Finally I went back to the family history. Writing On Bittersweet Place taught me how to use fact in order to create fiction. This is what I learned:

1. Family stories aren’t enough. I realized I didn’t know the history of the period. I did research about the world of 1912 to 1928 first. Questions arose as I wrote and revised. I had to do more research. Were matchbooks used in 1927? Yes, I discovered. Was “big shot” a phrase in 1927? No, I learned. The details needed to be right.

2. Facts can interfere with imagination. I began to write about life in Russia using the facts of my great grandfather’s death. This didn’t work. I decided I wanted to capture the emotion surrounding his death but not to duplicate the facts. This decision felt liberating. I created a new family and characters. When I discovered Lena’s voice, On Bittersweet Place developed a rhythm, a direction. Lena isn’t based on a real person. She led me through the book.

3. A novel begins with an idea: what if. Recently, I read from On Bittersweet Place at a synagogue. During the Q&A, an eighth grader asked, “How did Lena know she wanted to become an artist if she had never tried to draw?”

“Each person is different from the other,” I said, struck by the question. “One person wants to draw, another to swim, and another to sing. Do you ever get an idea that you want to try something you’ve never done before?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.” He nodded.

“That’s what happened with Lena and drawing. She just wanted to try it. Try to be an artist.”

I realized this is a description of writing a novel. A novel is an idea that comes to a writer. It may be based on a phrase, an image, a fact. The writer doesn’t know if he or she can actualize the idea. But the writer tries. As I wrote, I wondered: what if this happened or that happened. I experimented, surprised by the characters and plot twists.

4. Characters will guide the writer. Lena’s brother Simon pushed me to make him a more important character than I’d anticipated. Lena behaved in ways I didn’t expect when I began to write the book.

5. The writer needs time. All writing, especially a novel, needs time to percolate. I needed time to focus on the book in a consistent way. Since fiction isn’t bound by fact, scenes and characters can be re-imagined and rewritten in draft after draft. That’s one of the pleasures of writing. The author Paul Theroux has said, “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Everything in a novel is open to change. Until the book is published. Then the characters and story fly away from the writer. The book takes on a life of its own.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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The Little Shul

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about Chanukah and shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When my father died at 93 in June 2012, I wanted to do something to mark his death. To say Kaddish. My mother had passed away in 2010. We sat shiva for her. Afterward, in the flurry of clearing out the house near Chicago where they’d lived for 55 years, taking care of my father, and moving him to an apartment, I hadn’t said Kaddish for her with regularity. This was a nagging omission.

At the time of his death, I was revising my novel, On Bittersweet Place. I stopped the revisions, shaken by the loss. Though my father lived a long life, he’d been doing well and died suddenly. As I wrestled with my grief, I realized I might have been too cavalier about the deaths that occurred in my novel.

A friend once told me that losing the last parent is like losing a third parent. Now I understood. I felt the loss of my father, my mother, of who they were together, and also of the protective, loving layer they had provided for me. In the best circumstances, there was a hierarchy to mortality; the buffer had fallen away.

After my father’s shiva, I returned home to New York and proceeded with my plan. I didn’t have high expectations when I went to my first Friday night service at the little shul in Greenwich Village. The synagogue I attended for holidays was far. I chose the one in the Village because it was close to where I lived. I was disappointed to learn there was no daily minyan, only Friday evening and Saturday morning services, occasionally Sunday morning. I thought of the synagogue as the “little shul.” The old building was set back from the street, behind a courtyard, and it was tiny, like a rustic city house. I went there hoping the synagogue would be a repository for my grief. I imagined I should be able to weather my parents’ deaths with ease, perspective, and acceptance. But, in truth, I felt unanchored.

That first Friday night, twenty congregants sat in the small sanctuary. When I stood to say Kaddish in this new venue, shock swept through me. I had reached this point in life: an orphan. I was flooded with an ache for my mother, my father, the world they had created together. My father’s humor, the tilt of his head when he laughed, his quiet wisdom. When I was younger—with youthful arrogance—I had been critical of him. Now I was flooded with love for him, the depth of which I hadn’t realized when he was alive. The words of the Kaddish, like a chant, calmed and comforted me.

After services, the rabbi, cantor, and congregants greeted me warmly. I met a man at synagogue that night, also a writer. He became a friend. His mother had just died, too, two days after my father. This became the ritual that summer, fall, winter, and spring: Friday night I attended services, looking forward to Kaddish, to thinking about my parents. Judaism was important to them. In the little shul, I felt close to them. Sometimes I attended on Saturday morning. After services, I visited with others in the congregation. Then my new friend and I walked home together. We parted when our paths diverged. He went west. I continued south. But first we stood on the sidewalk and talked about our losses, the raw grief, the administrative details, family complications, the closing up of a parent’s life and final closing up of an essential part of our own lives. We talked about our writing. He and I were walking down the same road.

I said personal prayers at home because there was no daily minyan.

To my surprise, I began to look forward to going to services, seeing the rabbi, my new friend, and others. We developed a bond. The predictability of the routine comforted me. I was grateful I’d found this new world.

During the year of saying Kaddish, I went back to work on my novel and considered what it meant to suffer a loss. Suffer. I thought about what a parent can give to a child. Not a physical gift. But time, attention, emotional connection.

I saw more clearly what the Czernitski family in On Bittersweet Place could give to one another. I felt greater empathy for my characters, for Lena and especially her mother and father who had lost parents. And I remembered a quote by Sigmund Freud I’d read years ago. He wrote about his father’s death: “By the time he died his life had long been over, but at a death the whole past stirs within one.”

I knew the past stirred within many of the characters in On Bittersweet Place. Lena and her family had fled their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution and settled in Chicago in the 1920s. They had been persecuted, lost relatives and a home. I knew the past stirred within me when I thought of my parents. Like Lena, I wanted to slam shut the gates of tears. I understood the characters with new depth and felt a kinship. I understood the poignancy and finality of absence. I dove into the work of revision, eager to help the characters wrestle with their grief, mourn, and join the world of living again.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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Chanukah: A Repository of Memory

Monday, December 22, 2014 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Chanukah is here again. The holiday’s arrival reminds me of the sweetness of celebrations when I was a child and when my children were young. Chanukah is also a reminder that another year has passed, a marker of time, and a reminder of the winter darkness that lies ahead. The glowing candles seem like hopeful beacons in the harshness of winter.

When I was a child, we celebrated the holiday with our large extended family. My mother’s parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles were born in Russia. The sounds of our celebration were a mix of English spoken without an accent, with an accent, and Yiddish. The children were given gifts, usually what we needed: a new winter coat, a wool sweater and socks, sometimes a decorative piece of clothing like a blouse or colorful scarf. The presents were utilitarian, but the celebration was joyous with scents of latkes filling the house.

In school, of course, Christmas was the dominant holiday. A few progressive teachers spoke about Chanukah and displayed a menorah. We didn’t know about Kwanzaa then. My children celebrated all three holidays in school; each holiday was given equal weight.

For the characters in On Bittersweet Place, who live in Chicago in the 1920s, Chanukah has a similar meaning but is also a stark reminder of their otherness. They are immigrants, strangers in their new land. Today’s immigrants are strangers, too, and still need to overcome the same obstacles the Czernitski family faced: learning a new language, finding work and housing, understanding a new culture, and dealing with prejudice. No amount of desire for assimilation can help immigrants feel comfortable with certain customs.

Lena feels her otherness even more strongly during the holidays, feels the precarious balance between her two worlds. Her teacher leads the class in Christmas carols and reads aloud Christmas stories.

Here is a scene that did not fit into the book. Although I liked this scene, I felt it didn’t move the narrative forward in the way I’d hoped, and so I didn’t include it in the novel. Lena hurries home after singing Christmas carols at school and walking past the Christmas tree displayed in the school hallway. She feels dejected. She didn’t know the words to the carols sung at school; her otherness has been exposed. The small apartment on Bittersweet Place is filled with the familiar smells of latkes. This is the same smell that lingered in the house when I was a child and when my children were young. The simple copper menorah sits on the ledge of the Czernitski kitchen window. Blessings are sung; candles are lit, flicker and glow. Small presents are given. Lena’s mother Reesa distributes the gifts, which are not wrapped. She wears a yellow apron over her blue cotton dress; she has been cooking. Lena’s brother Simon receives a red wool hat, Lena a pair of black wool gloves, thick to withstand the winter cold. Reesa gives nothing to her husband Chaim. She prefers to save money and use it for what the children need. But she prepares a favorite sweet for him, egg kichels. He brings her a single yellow rose, bought from a flower shop, an extravagance and uncharacteristic gesture of tenderness.

The holiday is a repository of memory for the Czernitski family and, perhaps, for every family, especially immigrants. Year after year we celebrate with the same foods, melodies, and prayers. Those with whom we celebrate, changes. Children grow up and move away, people we love become ill and die, we may move from one country to another, but the traditions remain. While Chaim reads the Chicago Tribune at the kitchen table, waiting for the aunts and uncles to arrive, Reesa sits in the living room with Lena and Simon, telling stories about family members who were killed in Russia. Year after year, the same stories, the same names.

For Lena, there is relief when the stories, songs, Christmas carols, Christmas tree, and the pull of the past ends. Reesa sets the menorah on a high kitchen shelf. The holiday is over. Lena can dive into life again and continue on her journey to find her “true nature” and the sense of safety and belonging she hopes for in her new home.

Ronna Wineberg is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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