Jewish novel depicts 1870s heroine toiling in S.F. boarding home

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Novels about Jews in America always seem to be set in New York. They always seem to begin with two immigrants from Lithuania moving into the tenements and going into the pants business. And they end, depending on the novel's tone, with a grandson either growing up to be a writer or dying in a mob hit.

Historian Harriet Rochlin's novel "The Reformer's Apprentice," however, is about the West Coast. Set in late-19th-century San Francisco, it focuses on Frieda Levy, an idealistic and independent spirit who lives the difficult, prosaic life typical of Jewish women in her era.

Yet despite a strongly researched historical backbone, this novel is an emotional Cinderella story.

It opens in 1875, at a meeting of a group called the Sisters of Service, in which Frieda and other young girls discuss their community-service ideals. The group's leader, a Miss O'Hara, advises Frieda to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. But when Frieda asks her father for permission to attend high school, he angrily refuses and beats her.

When a financial crisis bankrupts Frieda's father, the family is forced to move in with Frieda's demanding, Orthodox Aunt Chava. While other children in the family get a measure of freedom and happiness, Frieda works 16 hours a day helping Chava run a kosher boarding house on Tehama Street in what was then the South-of-Market Jewish neighborhood.

Frieda wades through filth in the boarders' rooms, hurts her eyes from grating onions and suffers the prurient interests of men who disgust her.

She is so consistently misused and oppressed by nearly everyone around her — so badly taken for granted, so grossly prodded toward a loveless marriage with one of the boarders — that readers might accuse Rochlin of manipulative tear-jerking.

But the literary devices that work our sympathies so roughly are no less effective for all their transparency.

At one point, Frieda writes her obnoxious family a note reading, "I love you all dearly." It would seem fairer for her to drag them all into court. Such discrepancies underscore this beleaguered heroine as a product of her situation, Rochlin said in an interview.

"She has deep feelings for herself as the daughter of these people," Rochlin said. "And they were people of a certain kind."

The author has spent the last 25 years researching the history of Jewish migration to the western United States. She has published her findings in Arizona Highways magazine and various historical journals, and in a nonfiction book entitled "Pioneer Jews."

A Los Angeles native who spent her college years in the Bay Area, Rochlin intends this novel to be the first in a trilogy about Frieda Levy's travels and travails through the 19th-century American West.

As Frieda enters American life more deeply in future books, it seems likely that readers will repeatedly encounter one troubling aspect of "The Reformer's Apprentice" — the novel's most likable characters are either non-Orthodox (such as Bennie Goldson, the Arizona Jewish cowboy) or not Jewish at all (such as Frieda's mentor, Miss O'Hara).

But as Frieda gets older, she will increasingly think of herself as her family's representative, Rochlin said.

"I was trying to describe the conflict of change, and what we have to go through as we adapt to circumstances," the author said.

This adaptation, she explained, means "relinquishing aspects [of oneself] that no longer fit this time and this place."