Book Review: “Greenhorns: Stories”

By Joan Kurtz

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A "greenhorn" is defined in Robert Slotkin's new book, "Greenhorns: Stories" as immigrants who "spend their lives scrabbling for a place in the nation, trying to figure it out and never quite getting it." His collection of short sorties is based on real experiences of some of his family members who came to the United States from parts of Russia and Poland at the beginning of the 20th century. The stories are poignant and sometimes painful retellings of Jewish immigration and eventual assimilation.

The words "greenhorn" and "Other Side" appear in all of the stories. Slotkin uses these words to compare life in Eastern Europe with its pogroms and persecutions to life in the goldene medineh or Promised Land where the streets of New York are not paved in gold but where there is poverty and cultural challenges. Families are uprooted from their shtetl and now have to learn how to be an American. The new generation usually can figure it out while immigrant parents stay locked in the past.

"The Gambler" depicts Aaron, a butcher, who flees to the US with promises to bring his wife and sons over as soon as he has the money. It takes four years but he finally can send for them. "But to do it he had made a great hole in his life, in their life, a hole empty with vast miles and years of absence." In finally accomplishing what he set out to do, "in winning, he lost."

Cousin Bella in "The Other Side" was born and raised on the Other Side but came to the states when she was eighteen. She was world-educated, financially secure and devoted to the arts. Though her eyes sparkled with warmth and caring, there was a dark side that could only be seen if looked close enough. In those cold eyes you could see the horrors she experienced before coming over to America, the ones she finally shared with her daughter much later in life.

Three other stories continue the immigration and assimilation tales. Slotkin concludes with a chapter on "Greenhorn Nation: A History of Jokes," most of which are not politically correct but help us to better understand how we identify as children of immigrants and are called Jewish-Americans.

A Dream Come True

By Rifke Feinstein

As a young child in a Yiddish-speaking home in the Bronx, New York, my mother took me to a few Yiddish plays. I understood every word and I loved the experience. I am no longer a young child, and I live in Cleveland, OH, but my dream to see another Yiddish play came true recently … and what a play it was!

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Three months ago, in the Arts section of the New York Times, I read that there would be a Yiddish version of Fiddler On The Roof. I was overwhelmed, but recovered and bought two tickets that day! I then asked my cousin Helaine, who lives in New York City and could put me up for a weekend (and who understands Yiddish) if she'd like to go as my guest. Her "Yes!" was immediate, and I made flight reservations.

The reviews in the New York Times and the Jerusalem Times were outstanding. The play was being performed by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (Folksbiene = People's Stage), which is housed in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, New York. The Folksbiene presents both English and Yiddish shows, but this was the first time in 50 years (!!!) that the Yiddish version of Fiddler was being shown in New York for a wider audience.

My cousin and I sat in great anticipation before the play began, and as soon as the young woman, who played the "fiddler", began to play "Tradition", Helaine and I began to cry, and looking around, I saw we were definitely not alone!

The play was true to its original form and the translation was very good. For example, the title was a perfect translation..."fidler oyfn dakh". Tevye was performed by an outstanding actor who also was a singer and a dancer. His joy, his sadness and his love were portrayed beautifully. The dancers in the cast, portraying, either khasidim or Russian peasants, were thrilling.

There were supertitles in both English and Russian, but I think the majority of the audience understood Yiddish, as the frequent laughter came before the translations were fully displayed!

I was home...amongst my people...and I loved every moment of this outstanding performance. And we heard a rumor that there is talk of taking this Yiddish play on the road! Be on the lookout for it...you won't be disappointed!!!

Postscript

The day after I saw "fidler oyfn dakh", cuzzy Helaine and I were out walking. As it was very hot, we went into the 42nd St. Marriott Hotel to cool off. I sat in a chair opposite a young woman wearing a "Beautiful" T-shirt. Carole King was singing in the background and I mentioned to the young woman how nice it was to hear Carole King's voice and look at her Beautiful" shirt which was the name of the Carole King musical. We chatted and she asked me if I had been to the theater yet this visit. When I said I had, she asked me for the name of the play. I only got as far as..."The Yiddish" when she stopped me and said..."Fiddler"!?!?!? "Yes", I said. Excitedly, she then told me that her best friend was the fiddle player who symbolized the "fidler oyfn dakh" in the show!!! Nine million people in NYC, and I met the friend of the woman (fiddler) who made me cry while she played the day before! I love serendipitous happenings and again, I wasn't disappointed!!!

 

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice

When you are a minority in the country you call home, it is easy to get a sense of feeling lost. When you travel some place and you realize in some small area you are no longer a minority, you change. You feel more comfortable, confident in your walk and talk. You no longer wonder about your place in the world.

I recently planned and traveled to Europe, visiting five cities with my niece to celebrate her completion of her Bat Mitzvah. As I watched the news for the last year and saw all the things happening in the world to the Jewish people, I became nervous. However, along the way, we had the pleasure of going to Venice, Italy, where there is a thriving Jewish community. There are over 270,000 permanent residents in Venice. Of those residents, 500 of them are Jewish. In Venice's Jewish neighborhood, you have that sense of belonging and do not have the constant awareness of being in the minority. There is a Jewish school, a Talmud Torah, kindergarten and an old age Home.

In planning the trip, I booked us a room at Giardino Dei Melgorani, Kosher House. When I saw this, I knew it was the place we should stay. We happened to be there over Shabbos, so we had to climb our stairs instead of using the elevator and needed to ensure everything was taken care of before Shabbos approached. Unknown to us was that this hotel was in the Campo Ghetto Nuovo, the New Jewish Ghetto. We passed many Jewish shops and restaurants on our way to the hotel. We saw the children with kippahs and tzitzit, the mothers preparing for Shabbos and every tourist stopping and staring at all the action taking place. We also saw a Jewish museum that explained the history of the area.

Upon checking in to the hotel, we sat and talked with the person helping us. He offered to have us attend Shabbos services in the community, something we unfortunately declined as we lacked appropriate clothes to be respectful to those in the community. He did go on to tell us the story of the community. In Venice today, there are five active synagogues: a Spanish, Levantin, Italian, Canton and German Synagogue. He told us how Venice was the first location to make Ghetto a place on the map, and not just where the Jewish people where within a town, but to make it its own town to the world. This blew my mind.

The history lesson continued with telling us that on March 29, 1516, the government issued special laws to establish the first Ghetto of Europe. While this may seem like a positive, it also came with rules that the Jewish people were forced to follow. The Jewish people could not live anywhere else except in the Ghetto and were locked in from sunset to dawn. He then showed us the two areas in which the doors were located and how open they are now. The Jewish people were also only allowed to work certain professions: doctors, money-lenders, merchants and strazzarioli (rag sellers). This Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries.

The next part of the story was something I had never heard before, and my niece and I were both surprised. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, he broke down the doors and gates to the Ghetto, freeing the Jewish people and giving them the opportunity to roam the city with no limitations and making them a part of the community at large, not just their small section.

As we walked around after this story, we were so much more aware of our surroundings. Seeing all the street signs took on a new meaning for both of us. When we walked up the stairs leaving the Ghetto that was previously locked off, there was this sense of freedom that even I felt. It reminded me of the same feeling of pride I felt when leaving concentration camps when I was in Poland. This was sense of "even though they tried to destroy us, we are proof that they could not."

After this experience, I would love to go back and spend more time in Venice. I want to experience the things I was unable to do and see because of my limited time.