Nathan’s Song

Leda Schu­bert, Maya Ish-Shalom (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – August 4, 2021

Jew­ish immi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe to the Unit­ed States is often viewed as a mass expe­ri­ence, but each immi­grant was a unique indi­vid­ual. As in any part of the world, shtetl Jews had dif­fer­ent tal­ents, hopes, and dreams. In Nathan’s Song, based on the life of Leda Schubert’s grand­fa­ther, Nathan is not a Tal­mud schol­ar or a future entre­pre­neur. Instead, he is gift­ed with a beau­ti­ful voice, and he longs for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to train as a pro­fes­sion­al vocal­ist. In fact, he hopes to study in Italy, the coun­try that he asso­ciates with the high­est clas­si­cal stan­dards in his field. This pic­ture book is a refresh­ing por­trait of a young Jew ded­i­cat­ed to his art, whose sup­port­ive fam­i­ly and a cer­tain amount of luck lead to a rich and ful­fill­ing life in America.

Nathan is the boy in the vil­lage who can sing in any sit­u­a­tion: peel­ing pota­toes, stack­ing wood, bring­ing water from the well. No one in his com­mu­ni­ty expects Nathan to pur­sue his voca­tion as a career but they know that He can lift your heart with his voice.” In addi­tion to litur­gi­cal singing, Jews have always enjoyed a deep con­nec­tion to folk music that reflect­ed their own expe­ri­ences. Nathan seems to be ver­sa­tile enough to sing any­thing. But when he is for­tu­nate enough to hear a con­cert by a pro­fes­sion­al opera singer, he knows that he must pur­sue this dream. Instead of dis­cour­ag­ing his imprac­ti­cal plans, Nathan’s par­ents actu­al­ly sup­port him, insist­ing that they will find the mon­ey for his trav­el to Italy. The good for­tune of hav­ing a lov­ing and ide­al­is­tic fam­i­ly is the begin­ning of Nathan’s wind­ing journey.

As in many immi­grant nar­ra­tives, Nathan encoun­ters some unex­pect­ed obsta­cles. He boards the wrong ship and ulti­mate­ly lands in New York City. There is a cer­tain fairy tale qual­i­ty to this unfore­seen turn, which leads to ini­tial set­backs but final­ly to suc­cess. Yet each detail of the sto­ry removes it from the lev­el of myth and grounds it in real­i­ty. Nathan finds a job mak­ing hats, not work­ing in an opera house. He keeps singing to him­self while work­ing. An Ital­ian gen­tle­man named Nico­lo hears him and offers to give him lessons. This won­der­ful work­ing rela­tion­ship does not lead to the great opera hous­es of the world, but rather to a dif­fer­ent reward­ing career: So Nathan sang his beloved opera in restau­rants, and at wed­dings, and even in small the­aters.” Even­tu­al­ly, his patience and grat­i­tude lead to a big Broad­way stage.” At the same time, a love­ly woman named Sonia comes into the hat shop where Nathan works and, before long, they are mar­ried. Nathan needs more than recog­ni­tion of his voice to be content.

Maya Ish-Shalom’s illus­tra­tions use col­or­ful geo­met­ric fig­ures and care­ful design to cre­ate the per­fect stage for Nathan’s life. One pic­ture fea­tures three port­holes on a grand ship through which the read­er views the glit­ter­ing captain’s table” and ladies and gen­tle­men with their dia­monds.” Nathan ser­e­nades them, hands on his heart, while musi­cal notes emerge into the air. In New York City, rec­tan­gu­lar sky­scrap­ers dwarf the hors­es and car­riages on the streets below and the res­i­dents engage in all the activ­i­ties of busy urban life. Nathan’s goals are a small part of this giant world, mak­ing his per­sis­tence more mov­ing. A wed­ding scene is full of kinet­ic mag­ic; the bride’s white dress is sur­round­ed by col­or and move­ment as dancers sur­round her and raise her in the air. The pic­tures suc­cess­ful­ly com­bine ele­ments of folk art with his­tor­i­cal details, giv­ing a rich image of ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry New York. Nathan and his fam­i­ly are both dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters and reflec­tions of his­tor­i­cal events. Every immi­grant has a sto­ry, and Nathan also has a song.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed pic­ture book includes an author’s note explain­ing the sto­ry behind the book.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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