Two survivors of a Red Army pogrom search for purpose and connection in Rothman-Zecher’s latest novel. It’s a story that brings readers face-to-face with unfathomable childhood trauma while pondering complex themes of racial and religious persecution, intersecting subordinate identities, and the socialist movement in pre-World War II America.
Strong, appealing characters carry Rothman-Zecher’s necessarily heavy and emotionally-painful story. Leyb, now nineteen years old, was a small child when all of his family and neighbors were taken to the forest by soldiers to be massacred in a village in Eastern Europe. Through a network of extended relatives, he was brought to faraway Philadelphia and raised and educated in the city’s Jewish-Orthodox community. Living among hard-working, religious families, Leyb develops an appreciation for worldly learning, though he remains an outsider, drifting through an urban environment (“amerike”) he longs to but struggles to understand. While he’s given the nickname Lion, Leyb is much more of a lamb– gentle, trusting, and ill-prepared to protect himself from the harshness of the world. He also has the task of figuring out how to live as a gay man in a community and a broader world that considers his nature shameful and deviant.
Gittl was just a few years older than Leyb when their village was massacred, and their lives diverge and then intertwine miraculously. In contrast to shy, vulnerable Leyb, Gittl is a hardened fighter who made her way across Europe cleaning houses and eventually working as a translator for a Marxist newspaper. Though equipped with greater agency than Leyb, due, in part to the demands placed on Jewish peasant girls to take care of home and family, the violence from her childhood has made her a loner in a tough, emotionally-detached way. Whereas Leyb seeks love and connection, Gittl looks to survive through human transactions that can easily be left behind. Her deeper connections are from the past via the spirits of her siblings who are always with her, giving her strength to persevere. A mantra echoes in her head: “Gittl, never alone.”
Both Leyb and Gittl’s lives are transformed when they meet Charles, a writer who travels in Philadelphia’s socialist circles. Charles is also a black man who knows quite well the tenuous position of minorities in society. Leyb meets Charles at an underground gay bar called Crickets, and they enter an affair. When Leyb is cast out by his community, Charles provides him refuge. Later, Gittl finds herself in Philadelphia and joins their household.
The author commits to an authentic voice for his characters, which is challenging at times, with dialogue and internal monologue in Yiddish and regional colloquialisms that require reading extensive footnotes to follow. Yet this is a story that provokes the mind and heart on many levels. In poetic passages, one feels the shock and dissonance of Leyb and Gittl’s trauma, and their fractured, sometimes dizzying narratives convey the lasting disorientation from childhood loss and displacement.
To equal effect, Rothman-Zecher’s novel raises profound questions about the nature of human oppression and the attempts of social movements to address its complexities. Charles, for example, finds a place to put his literary skill to use within a radical labor rights organization that is ambivalent about acknowledging the impact of slavery in America. Leyb is shunned by fellow Jews whose oppressors would hardly spare them from annihilation because they agree with their disgust for gay men and lesbians. Gittl is welcomed to Philadelphia by middle-class Jews who proclaim socialism as salvation while her family and neighbors were butchered against the backdrop of communist revolution. “What will you do before all the world?” the author asks his characters, and of course the reader. One cannot give too much away in a review, but ultimately, the author offers a hopeful message about the courage of the human spirit.
A fascinating and moving work of literary fiction, which I would say is important reading for readers of all categories.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters