Category Archives: Immigrant story

Dear Michael Chabon,

 

 Thank you for liberating my inner Jew! A few years ago I experienced an adult bat mitzvah and moved to Washington State. These two experiences, a belated reunion with my Jewish roots and a Diaspora-worthy sense of dislocation, inspired me to write something different from the comic cozies featuring a menopausal protagonist that I wrote in New Jersey. I’d write the Great Northwest Feminist Jewish Mystery, a herstorical whodunit. I was well into this project when I discovered that you’d already written it: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

 Giving rein to professional jealousy over your novel’s deliciously high concept would be silly. I love the image of Sitka, Alaska as The Promised Land and the way you recreate Yiddishkeit there. How clever is that? And loathing you for your ability to write perfect dialogue or for your superior knowledge of all things Jewish is not in my moral make-up. I’m not the petty sort who would despise you for describing people, including a possible Messiah and your protagonist Meyer Landsman, so vividly that I reread some passages several times just to savor your artfully arranged sequences of telling details. What reader could resist Meyer who “has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker”?  Nor do I hold it against you that your story made me laugh and cry which, at my age, is a risky business. And who am I to resent a man for twisting the testosterone-tinged formula of the noir into a tale in which a woman saves the day and the “hero” is happy about it? Not my style.

 Instead, I took the high road and used your fabulous book to keep me from being discouraged when members of my writing group complained about the occasional Yiddishisms in my manuscript or when my own inner voice, a one-woman chorus of self-doubt, chimed in: “No one will publish this, Jane. It’s too Jewish. It’s not Jewish enough. It’s too commercial. It’s not commercial enough. There’s not enough sex and violence. There’s too much sex and violence. It’s not like your other books. . . .”

            The Yiddish Policemen’s Union offered me a timely perspective on Jews as outsiders and on the significance and nature of a Jewish homeland presented in the highly palatable form of a really good mystery. You make the many dreads of the Diaspora accessible to younger Jews and non-Jews alike, no small feat. I’m also grateful to you for using your Pulitzer- enhanced prestige and overdose of storytelling talent to legitimize mysteries in the minds of those who insist crime fiction is not “literary.” The Yiddish Policemen’s Union disproves that notion. I forgive you for writing it. Thank you and mazel tov

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery

Dear David Guterson,

I didn’t read your gripping novel Snow Falling on Cedars because it won the PEN/Faulkner Award. I didn’t read it because it’s a mystery, and I write mysteries myself.  No, I read your book because I’ve always turned to fiction to get the facts, and I wanted to learn more about the Pacific Northwest where my daughter and her boyfriend had settled.  During one of my visits in the late nineties I bought Snow Falling to read on my flight back to Newark.

To this twentieth century tourist, the Seattle area seemed progressive in the best sense of the word. The place seemed too damn hip for racism or anti-Semitism, and I figured it always had been. But reading your dramatic story of how after World War II anti-Japanese bias and post-traumatic stress skew a murder investigation made me wonder. Until I met Kabuo Miyamoto and his wife Hatsue in your novel, the Internment of Japanese-Americans was an abstraction to me and the post war reintegration of the internees into their communities something I’d literally never considered.

Reading of the Miyamotos’ struggle, I found myself wondering what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for Jews during the postwar period. We too had been foreigners. Had we also been blamed for World War II? For being different?  Kabuo and Hatsue are not the only outsiders in your novel. Ishmael, your story’s narrator and a native son, is another. Ishmael is isolated not by his ethnicity but by his war injury and experiences and by his unrequited love for Hatsue, his childhood sweetheart. Both men find strength in memories of their fathers’ cultural and ethical legacies, discoveries not lost on me when, years later, my husband and I moved Out Here and I found myself an outsider.

Phil and I left the east coast for Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, in 2003. Although I was still writing the last two books in The Bel Barrett Mystery Series, I was planning to begin work on a historical mystery about an immigrant Jewish girl on New York’s Lower East Side. Writing about an immigrant felt appropriate because here, where I am often the only Jew in the room, I felt myself an outsider. Even as I explained Jewish customs and beliefs to people who actually knew no other Jews, I wasn’t sure I belonged here. The outsiders in Snow Falling on Cedars were much on my mind.

Very, very tentatively I began to consider setting the historical mystery I planned to write not in New York, but in Seattle when it was a frontier town. I began to research what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for those Jews who came here long before I did. Reading Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel as provocative as it is beautiful, inspired the research that eventually led to The Bones and the Book.

But that mystery is not the only novel of mine inspired by Snow Falling on Cedars. Your beautifully written descriptions of the snow, the sea, and the woodlands reinforced this former tourist’s impression that here in the Puget Sound area waterways matter. During my visits I’d seen for myself the many creeks, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and wetlands that divide the terrain and marveled at the scenic inlets, channels, coves, and bays that indent the coast.

Rivers and the ocean matter in The Garden State too. But during my lifetime, northeastern New Jersey, a place I love, has been so overdeveloped that, to tell the embarrassing truth, I never really thought of it as a part of the natural world. But years ago, staring out the window of that jet as we flew low over the notorious New Jersey Meadowlands approaching Newark, your watery tale made waves in my mind. In comparison to the sublimely beautiful San Piedro Island where Snow Falling is set, North Jersey’s familiar boggy backyard appeared more of a wasteland than usual. But with Snow Falling on my lap, I looked at the place differently.  Just as the Puget Sound hasn’t always been home to the cruise and cargo ships, ferries, and Navy installations there now, maybe the Meadowlands hadn’t always been a body drop and a garbage dump.

 Intrigued, I researched those wetlands and learned that long before there were pig farms or outlets, even before Jimmy Hoffa supposedly ended up there, the Hackensack River was an escape route for runaway slaves. Commercial vessels plied its waters, and its banks were home to many varieties of native flora and fauna. The reed-choked waterway of my childhood is slowly being reclaimed by environmentalists. The place is alive with seldom told stories. I set Hot on the Trail in the Meadowlands.

Thank you for writing a book so powerful and so beautiful that it moved me to reimagine my native state and to discover yours and my grandchildren’s.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, Immigrant story, mystery

Dear Jonathan Safran Foer,

 Writing Everything Is Illuminated took courage. I’ve read that your marvel of a novel is a result of research you did on your grandfather’s origin in and escape from a Jewish Ukrainian village depopulated by the Nazis and further destroyed by partisans. It took guts for you to visit the scene of that bloodbath, to reimagine your grandfather and his life before the bloodletting, to make him and his doomed village live again for new generations.

I don’t remember my parents ever telling me about the Holocaust, but I’m sure they tried to explain it to me. Permanently scarred by the seemingly inexplicable shooting of Bambi’s mom, I probably was too afraid to fathom such a thing as genocide let alone to register and remember my parents’ explanation. Even now, I can’t imagine how my grandkids will take it when they learn that there’s more to Jewish history than matzoh, menorahs, and mitzvahs. In the small attic over the garage of our condo is a box of family photos, letters, and mementos, tangible testimony to the stories I didn’t want to listen to when I was   growing up. I’ve schlepped this box around the country for two decades waiting until I feel brave enough to open it.

Meanwhile I think about your quest and the moving novel you wrote about it. In Everything Is Illuminated you juxtapose the horrific with the hilarious. Much of the book’s humor derives from Alex Perchov, the Ukrainian translator who narrates part of your story. His delightfully discombobulated English idioms tickled me, and his perspective ─adolescent, Ukrainian, and gentile─ intensifies the horror of genocide by personalizing it. But Alex is more than a jokey foil who makes the bitter pill of Nazism easier for the reader to swallow. The teenage translator makes a few discoveries about his own ancestors and the stain mass murder leaves even in the minds of those forced to facilitate it.

I too needed a fictional translator of a language I don’t speak, read, or write. When I read Everything Is Illuminated, I was beginning research on a mystery set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Gold Rush and in 1965. My story features a young Ukrainian woman’s diary written in Yiddish during the Nineteenth Century and translated in 1965 in Seattle. Inspired by Alex and my own ignorance of Yiddish, I made my translator an educated and assimilated Jewish housewife. Rachel Mazursky sees it as her mission to Anglicize the Yiddish scrawl of a semi literate immigrant girl so it will be easily intelligible to nonYiddish speakers. To do this she translates the diary into the unaccented Standard English she’s carefully cultivated and so makes the diary accessible and the diarist credible.

I’m also intrigued by your novel’s “hero,” a young American writer bearing your name. Last summer against the advice of my writing group, I began working on a mystery featuring a fictional writer named Jane Isenberg. Your deft handling of the writer as character will help me as I struggle to weave my own namesake into that story effectively. If I succeed, the resulting novel will be part murder she wrote and part how the hell she wrote it.

Another thing I admire about your book is that you don’t “write down” to some imaginary reader too simple, busy, or lazy to follow a story told in several voices, idioms, and time frames. On the front jacket of the hard cover edition, Nathan Englander calls Everything Is Illuminated “intricate in structure,” and he’s right. That intricacy suits the complexity of the tale you tell and compliments the readers you tell it to by assuming that we can follow it. Bravo!

Please write another novel soon. Meanwhile, thanks for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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

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.

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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