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The Boston Phoenix Leaps of Faith

Through the ages, Jews have sought to remake their lives in new homes. Three fall books celebrate the stories that result.

By Sarah Coleman

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

THE PROMISED LAND, by Ruhama Veltfort. Milkweed Editions, 300 pages, $23.95.

THE JEW STORE, by Stella Suberman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 312 pages, $19.95.

THE GHOST OF HANNAH MENDES, by Naomi Ragen. Simon and Schuster, 381 pages, $23.

My grandmother Jane was as skinny as a bird, but she always kept a supply of chocolate by her bed so that she could munch a little in the middle of the night. Before she died at age 93, her childhood in London's Jewish East End came back to her with vivid certainty. She couldn't remember the question you'd asked her 10 minutes previously, but she could recall standing with her Yiddish-speaking father in the doorway of her family's tenement, watching bombs fall during World War I. She remembered Mrs. Brody, a stout woman who would arrive in the courtyard every morning with a tray of hot bagels that she'd string up around her chair like beads on a giant necklace. "Please God, you should be as happy as we were," my grandmother would say, though some of her stories were about fending off tiny red bugs that lived in the walls and beds of the tenement -- or, more ominously, fending off the fascist Brown Shirts who occasionally marched, chanting, through the neighborhood.

Her stories connect me to a culture that for a long time I was eager to reject. Growing up in England, I always wanted to believe that I was descended from the Duke of Edinburgh, and not from an East End Russian coal merchant. It took me a while to realize that the cultural quirks I found so embarrassing -- the cheek-pinching uncles, Yiddish curses, and sour pickles -- were exactly the kinds of details that give texture and depth to a story. My family's stories often weren't heroic (a worrying number of gamblers cropped up in them), but they were infused with humor and optimism. This seems at least part of the key to Jewish survival. Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, Jews have been obliged to keep migrating across continents, remaking homes and histories in the process. But if there's generally a bit of tsuris (trouble) involved, there's also considerable naches (joy) in fusing the old and the new, discovering fresh territory. These themes of migration and ancestry seem particularly apt at the approach of Rosh Hashanah, when we simultaneously celebrate the passage into a new year and recall the merits of ancestors through the prayer of Zihronot (memory).

The journey from Old World to New is at the heart of Ruhama Veltfort's novel The Promised Land, due out in November. Veltfort, who lives in San Francisco, has a colorful biography: the granddaughter of famed psychologist Otto Rank, she hung out with Jerry Garcia in high school in Palo Alto before heading off to Barnard College to study anthropology and Sanskrit. She has written several volumes of poetry, and she brings a poetic sensibility to this lyrical and ambitious first novel, in which a 19th-century Jewish family travels from Poland to St. Louis and then strikes out on the Oregon Trail.

Narrated in alternate chapters by Yitzhak, a Rabbinic scholar and visionary, and his wife, Chana, The Promised Land gets off to a rip-roaring start in 1820s Poland, where the young Chana's family is torn apart by a fever that leaves her older brother mentally disabled. Chana's parents subsequently reject her and she grows up a misfit, which makes her a perfect match for the passionate, slightly off-kilter Yitzhak. "One day your fire will take you to a harsh place," Yitzhak's teacher, the rebbe Shmuel Salomon, tells him. "A little like Moses, you are reluctant now, but you will lead your people over a vast desert." When Yitzhak and Chana are exiled from their village and when their fiddler friend Chaim gets beaten up for putting "Jewish notes in the mazurka," the three of them depart for the US in the company of Yitzhak's sister Feigl, her husband, Asher, and assorted other followers of Yitzhak's.

The ensuing collision of cultures gives Veltfort a chance to explore how faith and culture inform the immigrant experience. For Noah Cohn, a rich German-Jewish merchant with whom Yitzhak and Chana stay in St. Louis, America provides "the opportunity for the Jew to leave behind the medieval superstitions that have caused his persecution in Europe for so many centuries." But Yitzhak sees that Cohn and his kind have become amoral, worshiping only "the images graven on their golden coins." On the other hand, he's intrigued by the Native Americans and born-again Christians he finds on his travels, who teach him that "God [is] everywhere, and he himself [is] part of that." As Yitzak and Chana embark on their perilous journey west, this lesson proves valuable. Songs and prayer help buoy their group's flagging spirits -- and though there are deaths on the way, the eventual arrival of the trip's survivors in San Francisco represents a triumph of spirit over harsh conditions.

Veltfort conducted considerable research in Bay Area Jewish libraries to write The Promised Land, but she weaves period detail so seamlessly into her narrative that she might just as well have been channeling two ancestor spirits. Though Yitzhak and Chana seem a little exotic at the outset, they develop into compelling and inspiring characters whose journey -- both physical and spiritual -- comes vividly alive.

Another enigmatic pioneer can be found in Stella Suberman's The Jew Store (October), an engaging memoir of 1920s life in a Southern town where her family were the first Jews to settle. Suberman's father, Aaron Bronson, comes across as a dapper, optimistic fellow who is determined to make good even if it means going where he's not welcome. Confident in the power of his salesmanship, Bronson takes his family from New York to Tennessee to open the kind of discount dry goods store known to Southerners of that era as a "Jew store."

The inhabitants of Concordia (Suberman's fictional name for the town) receive the Bronsons with a hefty measure of skepticism. A generous spinster called Miss Brookie takes them in, but a local real estate agent speaks for many of the town's residents when he tells Bronson that "YankeeJews spoil a town." Suberman's mother, Rivka, a rather gloomy woman who lives by the mantra that everything is "tem-po-rary," wonders why they ever left the safety of the Bronx. But as the store grows stronger, even Rivka gets involved in the town's gossip and politics. Bronson becomes something of a town hero when he saves a shoe factory from closure, and the local Ku Klux Klan chapter is sufficiently impressed with him that it leaves the store intact, even when he takes the unprecedented step of hiring a black clerk. But the real test of the family's absorption into Concordia comes when daughter Miriam falls in love with a local boy. It's this romantic tryst that forces the Bronsons to examine the depth of their roots in Concordia and to decide where they should draw the line when it comes to assimilation.

Suberman, who was born in Concordia, draws on her parents' and older siblings' memories, and occasionally on her own (there's a wonderful scene where she's paraded around the park by Miss Brookie's black housekeeper, who proudly tells people, "This here my Jew baby"). But she fleshes out the characters and creates well-paced scenes that read like fiction. With a faultless ear for Southern dialect and a wry sense of humor, she shows that boundaries on the map are sometimes more easily traversed than those that lurk deep in the heart.

If the Jews of our parents' and grandparents' generations were often forced to leave old worlds behind, those coming of age today sometimes find themselves making the journey in reverse. In Naomi Ragen's novel The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, published this month, the search for roots is not entirely voluntary. Catherine da Costa, a New York society woman who comes from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family, receives a cancer diagnosis and a visit from a ghostly ancestor on the same day -- and finds that when you need to convince a pair of worldly granddaughters of the value of their Jewish heritage, it can be handy to have a ghost around.

Her visitor is Doña Gracia (Hannah) Mendes, a real-life historical figure who, as a 16th-century businesswoman and Jewish philanthropist, became a model of resistance for Jews persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. Naturally, this illustrious ancestor is annoyed that Catherine hasn't managed to teach her granddaughters, Suzanne and Francesca, anything about their religion or heritage.

"You thought your mother was a fool with her rituals, prayers and incantations," the ghost taunts Catherine. "And now you're going to die, and you're afraid."

Under Hannah's direction, Catherine persuades the two flighty twentysomethings to go to Europe, where they track down Hannah's lost diary and experience some ghostly visitations of their own (they're also introduced to two nice Jewish boys, thanks to their solicitous grandmother). Pieces of the diary turn up all over the place -- a clever device that allows Ragen to trot Suzanne and Francesca through their family history as she gradually unfolds Hannah's story. Through the manuscript (which Ragen imaginatively reconstructs), we see Hannah's family being driven out of Spain during the Inquisition and fleeing to Portugal, where they are forced to convert to Christianity. Maintaining links to Judaism by celebrating Jewish holidays in secret, they think they've been found out when two brothers see them praying in the forest. But the brothers, wealthy spice merchants, are also secret Jews, and one of them marries Hannah.

When he dies, she takes over the spice business and uses her smarts to smuggle money from Portugal to Venice, where she can live openly as a Jew. Later, she establishes Jewish benevolent societies and supports the translation of Hebrew prayer books "so that those who had forgotten their faith might recover it."

"I know there are others who, sharing my history and ancestry, have nevertheless turned traitor," Hannah writes in the diary. "Indeed, they have become our people's most despicable enemies. To my shame, I must admit that I have always understood them. For at first I, too, shed bitter tears over being one of those lowly people whom all despised. Only with time did I begin to fathom what a treasure had been bequeathed to me, and at what fabulous cost."

It takes some chutzpah to write a contemporary ghost story, and Ragen does well to play many of the ghost's scenes for laughs. When Hannah first appears to Catherine, Catherine assumes that the dark-skinned ghost is a relative of her Mexican housekeeper. "Have you come straight from Tijuana, then?" she asks. "Legally, I hope."

Unfortunately, Ragen doesn't always exhibit such a light touch with dialogue. At times she blurs the distinction between 16th-century formal speech and 20th-century chatter, making contemporary characters seem stiff and two-dimensional. On returning from Europe, Francesca tells her grandmother that "the places I saw in Spain and Venice made the past seem like the next town instead of some distant planet covered with clouds and barely visible through a telescope." Surely there's an easier way for a 25-year-old to express enthusiasm.

But Hannah's story sheds light on a fascinating period of Jewish history, and Ragen colorfully weaves facts into the granddaughters' romantic quest. Though Suzanne and Francesca might not end up embracing every aspect of their religious heritage at the end of the novel, they too learn to appreciate that culture and tradition have a place in their lives. It's a message to warm the heart of any Jewish grandmother, but Jews and non-Jews alike can delight in these stories of unusual pioneers battling to preserve a unique cultural heritage.

Sarah Coleman is a fiction writer and journalist living in San Francisco.

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