Off the shelf | Three novels transport you to New York, then and now

It’s time to select summer reading fare: I recommend three new debut novels that focus on Russian Jewish immigrants to New York. 

Boris Fishman’s “A Replacement Life” is one of the year’s most memorable Jewish novels. Its protagonist, Slava Gelman, works at an elite magazine seemingly modeled on the New Yorker, with a Manhattan life that is worlds away from the rest of his immigrant family’s existence in “the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn.” Slava aspires to be a great writer, but cannot get beyond his bottom-rung position at the magazine.

Following the death of his beloved grandmother Sofia, Slava is approached by his grandfather Yevgeny with a request to ghostwrite an application for German restitution funds for Holocaust survivors. The rub: Although Sofia’s ordeal in the Minsk Ghetto would have qualified her for reparation payments, Yevgeny is ineligible because he missed the worst of the war by fleeing Minsk for Uzbekistan. Yevgeny therefore asks Slava to write an application that transfers the conditions of his grandmother’s wartime experience to his grandfather’s. That is, to lie.

Slava initially refuses on ethical grounds, but ultimately yields to Yevgeny’s arguments, which are self-serving but also contain their own truth, as he challenges the Germans’ right to define what suffering is worthy of compensation.  Once  word of his talent gets around, he is besieged by similar requests from other older Brooklyn-dwelling Russians. Thus he becomes a prolific author of sorts.

Slava finds something exhilarating in composing the fraudulent documents, particularly as they offer him a deepened sense of connection to his late grandmother. But he also becomes mired in an outlaw’s quandaries and guilts, particularly when he attracts the attention of a German investigator.

And Slava’s dilemmas become entwined with his romantic choices. He is torn between his thoroughly American co-worker Arianna and fellow Soviet émigré Vera, with the women’s differing attitudes toward his shady activities reflecting the divide between the cultures that Slava straddles.

“A Replacement Life” and Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s “Panic in a Suitcase” are both part of a bumper crop of books this year by young Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union writing in their second language. Akhtiorskaya, born in Odessa in 1985, is the youngest of the bunch, but the quality of her prose is remarkable.

Beginning in 1993 and spanning two decades, Akhtiorskaya’s frequently humorous novel follows the fortunes of the family of physicians Esther and Robert Nasmertov, who have emigrated from Odessa to Brooklyn’s Little Odessa. Their impractical son Pasha, a poet who has recently converted to Christianity, has stayed behind with his wife and son.

Key to the drama are the transoceanic encounters between the separated family members. Pasha visits America for a month to be with his ailing mother, encountering New York through disapproving eyes. And when, in 2008, Robert and Esther’s rudderless granddaughter Frida journeys to Odessa to attend Pasha’s son’s wedding, she finds Pasha to be surprisingly unsettled in his own city.

 The book is full of amusing characters, and wonderfully drawn portraits of both New York City and Odessa.  But it also asks important questions, including what it means to feel a sense of place in an increasingly global world.

It is interesting to read Susan Jane Gilman’s “The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” in the context of the previous two books, as hers relates an immigration story from a century ago. Gilman’s novel is a true summer read, not only for its light style, but for the attention it devotes to ice cream.

The book is narrated by Lillian Dunkle, a 70-something business tycoon who is experiencing the wrath of the law and the media as she faces charges of tax evasion and of smacking a young girl on the children’s TV program she has long hosted, “Dunkle’s Ice Cream Funhouse.”  

Lillian tells the story of her life, beginning with her immigration from Russia to the Lower East Side in 1913 as Malka Treynovsky. Her childhood is harrowing, with a street accident nearly crippling her. Her family refuses to bring her home from the hospital, and Malka is taken in by the Dinellos, the Italian-American family of the man whose truck hit her. 

Malka will discover that her natural family has collapsed, with her father departed, one of her sisters dead, and her mother institutionalized. Malka is baptized and raised as an adjunct member of the Dinello family, with her name changed to Lillian. But although she works hard alongside family members in their lace and ice cream operations, she learns that she will never be accepted as one of them. 

Lillian marries fellow Jewish immigrant Albert Dunkle, and the couple start an ice cream company that will grow into America’s largest.

The book’s central element is Lillian Dunkle’s personality. “America’s ice cream queen” has a highly selective ethical code, alcoholic tendencies and a penchant for alienating those around her. But some of the qualities that make her insufferable are also the qualities that have helped her transcend her suffering and overcome barriers to succeeding as a disabled woman in business in a particularly unenlightened era.

Tough and competitive, she also repeatedly displays her vulnerability, with time failing to heal the wounds of the betrayal she experienced from her natural and adoptive families.

“A Replacement Life” by Boris Fishman (336 pages, Harper, $25.99)

“Panic in a Suitcase” by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (320 pages, Riverhead, $27.95)

 “The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” by Susan Jane Gilman (512 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $26)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.