Monthly Archives: May 2011

Dear Bharati Mukherjee,

I wasn’t prepared to enjoy your novel Jasmine because it’s an immigrant saga and I’d tired of them even before I learned to read. My paternal grandparents were part of that “wretched refuse” washed up on America’s shores to sweat and slave so that my dad and his siblings could either become lawyers and optometrists or marry them. Even though those long-suffering Old World ancestors worked themselves to death years before I was born, my parents fed me their stories of sacrifice and struggle along with my Pabulum and formula. Every time I heard the words, “When she was your age, your grandma . . .” I longed to stick my fingers in my ears and my nose in the pages of a book about those all-American March sisters or that lucky little girl who lived with her normal parents in their cozy sod cottage out west.

Dan Short

But Jasmine is an imaginary immigrant, a fairy tale survivor with looks and chutzpah. Her equally imaginary grandchildren will hear how a gutsy teenager from an impoverished Punjabi village made the proverbial “better life” for herself in an America that was ripping the welcome mat right out from under the latest generations of huddled masses. Jasmine’s children will brag to their kids about how their mother, destined to be widowed and exiled, defied that grim forecast to become an American woman who determines her own fate. The instant I finished the novel, I added it to the syllabus of a course called Cultures and Values I was teaching at a community college in Jersey City, New Jersey.

International Art and Culture Agency

As an English prof, you surely know the risks inherent in rereading a much-loved book with students. For me it was like having a non-Jewish friend at our Seder table. I hope her enjoyment of the familiar chicken soup will inspire her to try the gefilte fish or at least to refrain from gagging audibly when I serve it. To my immigrant students in the Nineties, the quick-witted and lovely Jasmine was chicken soup, a superwoman sister. Her struggles were epic versions of their own and her conquests nourished their souls. But they had trouble understanding why the young widow fled the familiar but constraining comforts of the Punjabi community in Queens to seek out the real America.

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For my students the America that Jasmine explores was foreign, as much puzzle as Promised Land, more gefilte fish than chicken soup. It’s a place where many people, even women, routinely take fate into their own hands. One teenager in my class, promised to a man she’d never met still in Pakistan, asked, “Why would Jasmine’s employer, a successful career woman, divorce her husband, the father of her child, just because she fell in love with someone else?” A young male classmate from Kenya was astounded when Jasmine encounters a childless woman undergoing treatments to remedy her infertility. “The doctor can heal this woman so she can have a son? For sure?” I kept your moving and evocative book in the syllabus, and every time I reread it, I was struck by the appeal a well-crafted immigrant narrative has for all of us.

Meanwhile, I was conflicted about my own Jewish roots, and I resolved that someday I would write a novel about a Jewish immigrant girl who, like Jasmine, and unlike my grandparents, breaks with the constrictions and comforts of her culture to shape her own life. But it wasn’t until years later when I found myself out of my own comfort zone─ hundreds of miles from a good Jewish deli and often the only Jew in the room─ that I actually did. And your fictional Jasmine  helped me dream up Feigele Lindner, one of the protagonists of The Bones and the Book. So thank you for creating Jasmine and for your gifted telling of her story.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, unpublished

Dear Bel Kaufman,

Dear Bel Kaufman,

Happy birthday! I just read The New York Times article celebrating you and your work and announcing that you are now officially one hundred years young! Thank you for being my muse and mentor for most of my career as a teacher and writer. This is not the first time I’ve thanked you for inspiring me. Your insightful and moving novel Up the Down Staircase was the subject of an entire chapter in my memoir, Going by the Book. There I thanked you for the novel that helped me through my difficult early years teaching high school English.

You may not remember, but when Going by the Book came out in 1994, you learned about it and invited me to tea at the Mark Hotel. I recall getting off the subway and changing from sneakers to heels on the street so as to be worthy of the hotel and my hostess. You were witty and kind, asking me about my own writing and sharing anecdotes about your Russian childhood, your immigrant experiences, your career as an inspirational speaker, and your ballroom dancing.

I left the Mark more inspired than ever and returned to my classroom and my newest writing project, a mystery series featuring a community college English prof as a menopausal amateur sleuth. This character was as yet unnamed, so I decided to name her after the protagonist of Up the Down Staircase, Elizabeth Barrett. I christened her Sibyl Barrett.  I thought of her as a kind of seer, a person equipped to see through fakery to identify killers. But only her mother calls her Sibyl. To the rest of us, she is Bel, my tribute to you, the writer of a book that made millions of Americans flies on the graffitied walls of the urban classroom. Who will ever forget those fraught memos from the principal and the heartfelt, if misspelled, notes in Miss Barrett’s suggestion box? I included excerpts from administrative emails and student essays in all my Bel Barrett mysteries to enable my readers to join her in the community college classroom.  

  Articles about you never fail to mention your kinship with Sholom Aleichem, the source

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of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.  He, too, was a great story teller. But I was no stranger to great Jewish story tellers who were men. You, a Jewish woman who wrote a tell-it-like- it–is but make it go down easy novel about a crucially important topic, public education in America, were the role model I didn’t even know I needed. Thanks for your good work. I wish I could take the course you’re teaching on Jewish humor at Hunter.  I bet it’s terrific.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction