Set in Chicago, the stories of Yudl, his wife, Ryah, and their daughter, Ellen, give us an intimate view of Jewish immigrants who fled the Russian Revolution to America. With not-always-apparent love and affection for one another, they meet the challenges with forceful and often stubborn steadfastness. We share the joys and conflicts about freedom in the new country; we understand the loss either by intention or assimilation of cultural identity.
Ryah is here to stay, on a path to independence and capital gains. As she settles on becoming a corsetière, her trainer tells her, “With this you can do it. You won’t have to ask your husband for money. You will have your own money.” Not only does she go into business, but in time is the force behind their purchase of a building, telling her husband in the same breath that they should start buying land in Florida!
Ellen, the new generation, is all about education. She has heard the stories from the old country, sang the songs, and witnessed the impossible longing for all that was lost. On an imaginary walk with her newly deceased grandmother, they pass Ellen’s school. She tells us, “This school which was my place in America was something I wanted her to see and know.”
Yudl, dear Yudl, is the most compelling and conflicted. Standing outside his soon-to-be-finished building, he says, “I’m going to be a landlord…and I don’t want to be a landlord. What was a man who made his living on a Yiddish newspaper, a member of the Poale Zion, a socialist, doing as the owner of a piece of property… and soon to be collecting rents?” In the next moment he is ushered into a fancy office, where a gentleman with an American name begs him to chant the Kol Nidre.
“You don’t understand,” he says to Yudl. “I get lonesome for the old songs, for the nigunim.” Where should Yudl put himself?
The author pointedly ends with a story set in China, as the revolution from the north begins to strengthen. Ellen, a college graduate, travels to meet up with her husband. They spend time with an American-educated Chinese professor of economics. One day, the three, sitting in a small apartment the couple shares with Russian immigrants, witness the Russian selling coal to a needy Chinese man. Watching the transaction, Professor Ma spoke. “He must be a Jew.”
Published after the author’s passing, the stories are likely autobiographical. Known for her photography, Silbert wrote several books and many short works of fiction. Economic striving, politics, and education are, of course, underlying themes for all immigrant tales — at once familiar and close to home, no matter which cities our families settled in. Silbert’s stories are an endearing homage to those who fled unbearable conditions but carried with them loving memories and a will to survive with dignity and strength.