I Pity the Poor Immigrant

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Zachary Lazar, author of Sway, deft­ly weaves his­to­ry and fic­tion in his new novel. 

Jour­nal­ist Han­nah Groff trav­els to Israel to inves­ti­gate the mur­der of poet David Bellen. Over the course of her research, she learns about Mey­er Lan­sky, the gang­ster who emi­grated from Poland to New York and helped to estab­lish the Amer­i­can mob — and build Las Vegas. Fac­ing a mur­der charge, Lan­sky sought asy­lum in Israel, but the gov­ern­ment turned him down. 

I Pity the Poor Immi­grant cross­es gen­erations as read­ers meet char­ac­ters with inter­con­nect­ed his­to­ries. Hannah’s sub­ject, the mur­dered poet, wrote a book compar­ing King David to a gang­ster; Lan­sky is a gang­ster. Han­nah draws con­nec­tions between Lan­sky, his mis­tress Gila Konig — a Holo­caust sur­vivor — and Hannah’s own fam­i­ly, lead­ing her to uncov­er some unsa­vory aspects of the Groff lega­cy. The intri­cate sto­ry becomes a med­i­ta­tion on vio­lence and pow­er and their rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The Amer­i­can mob, the Israeli mob, and Israel’s ongo­ing con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans become part of a tale that trav­els between the spir­i­tu­al home of Jerusalem and the fan­ta­sy world of Las Vegas with its recre­at­ed ancient mon­u­ments. The Book of Samuel meets The God­fa­ther in a book with the title of a Bob Dylan song — and it all relates to mod­ern Israel’s polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. An excel­lent choice for book clubs, and a treat for any reader.

Relat­ed content:

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions