Novelist etches rich profile of Buffalo Jewish heritage

Goldie Cohen has disappeared. Left the house with a shopping bag, gone already for three days. Her younger siblings turn to the only truly functional one in the lot, Sadie Cohen Feldstein, for help. She swings into action.

From there, “The First Desire” unfolds not as a tense whodunit, but as a richly detailed profile of a Jewish family in Buffalo, N.Y., from 1929 to 1950. The story is told through the eyes of five adult characters — Sadie, sisters Jo and Goldie, brother Irving, and Lillian Schumacher, who befriends their father when his wife falls terminally ill. She becomes his lover. Their relationship takes on a degree of legitimacy after Abe’s wife dies, though the Cohen girls never accept Lillian, nor does Abe ever propose marriage.

Author Nancy Reisman, in the Bay Area recently for the San Francisco Jewish Bookfest, said it never occurred to her to make her debut novel not Jewish. “You write from who you are, and I’m a Jewish woman.”

While here, she also participated in a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, on “New Novels About Families.”

Reisman grew up in a suburban Buffalo Reform household in the 1960s and ’70s, and many elements of “Desire” come from that background. “There was a family home on Lancaster Street,” she said, like in the book. Her great-grandparents owned a jewelry store, like the patriarchal Abe Cohen. A great-aunt took off for the West Coast (though without the drama of the vanishing Goldie Cohen), and she “lived a bohemian lifestyle that fascinated me growing up.”

Reisman grew up reading and writing. “My grandmother was always handing me novels,” she said.

“There was a lot of storytelling and a lot of gossip, a lot of storytelling cut short because ‘the children are here.'”

Reisman lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications, including Best American Short Stories 2001.

She wrote her novel over a period of six years. Her research included interviewing family members and friends, viewing old Buffalo-area Jewish newspapers and photos on microfilm, and reading local historical accounts. She also took advantage of the Holocaust Resource Center in Washington, D.C., explaining, “I wanted to know how the refugees arrived.

“Around World War II the Jewish population in Buffalo was about 20,000, though they were definitely a minority.”

The downtown Buffalo of her parents’ generation was vibrant, she said, while today, “there’s a real sadness about it.”

Even as a child, Reisman felt “a sort of fascination about what downtown looked like [in its heyday], how it was sort of the place to be,” with “glamorous department stores” and elegant establishments.

Her parents still live in the area, and, as part of her book tour, Reisman gave a reading at the Buffalo Jewish Book Fair, where “a number of people really wanted to think this was ‘their book, this was our book,'” she said.

Other readers she met during her fall book tour have focused on “the larger issues” in the book, she said, such as family, “how to live in the world.”

Not surprisingly, “I have found that people attach to either Sadie, Lillian or Irving,” she said.

“I have a lot of affection for Lillian — I have sympathy for all of them — but it was not her place in time. …”

“The First Desire” by Nancy Reisman (310 pages, Pantheon Books, $24).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.