Back again to Dear America and one of my very favourites. Unsurprisingly, it is Kathryn Lasky, because she is fantastic, and I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again: she doesn’t get half the credit she deserves.
Book: Dreams in the Golden Country, The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, A Jewish Immigrant: New York City, 1903. Kathryn Lasky, 1998.
Zipporah, called Zippy, is twelve years old and sitting on a trunk in Ellis Island when we meet her. Tired and dirty, they have just arrived from their steamship voyage and are waiting in many of the endless lines to be “processed.” (Immigration: miserable in every age!) Zippy has two older sisters, Tovah and Miriam, and they are traveling with their mother to meet their father, who has been living in New York trying to afford their passage.
Zippy and her family are all tired and miserable, except for Tovah, the oldest sister, who has been running around learning things from the other travelers. She tells them that Jewish women in New York wear their own hair, not wigs, and Zippy thinks to herself that Tovah is a bit of a know-it-all and irritating smarty-pants. But Tovah is the one who saves her—when Zippy gets tagged with an E for having red eyes from irritation, Tovah turns her coat inside out and the family are all processed together.
It’s quite the shock when they see their father again, though—he no longer wears his sidelocks and they live in a horrid tenement building with a boarder, Reb Simcha, who smells like chickens. Zippy reflects that she is lucky, in a way, since they are escaping the pogroms of Russia, but in another way, they’re all living in a three-room apartment with a single window and a hall lavatory, so maybe America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Their first weekend there, Zippy discovers that Tovah has been teaching herself English in secret. Not truly a surprise, though, since Tovah is full of a kind of excitement for their new country that escapes the others so far. The only thing that seems the same so far is their Shabbos, but even that is different—their mother seems tired and beaten down, father exhausted from working in the sweatshop, and it fills Zippy with a sort of inescapable sadness.
That very week, Tovah and Miriam start at the sweatshop themselves, and Zippy starts school. She is horrified to find herself in first grade with the six- and seven-year-olds, since she doesn’t know any English. When Tovah finds out how upset Zippy is, Tovah gives her a spoonful of honey—the traditional gift for a male scholar on beginning his education. Tovah and Miriam are jealous, though they don’t show it, and Zippy resolves to not let her misery show. Instead she decides to put herself into studying with a frantic energy. She makes a friend, Bluma, who’s the same age and also stuck with the children. Blu has four younger siblings and a father who’s not very interested in the family, so Zippy thinks that things could really always be worse.
After the High Holy Days, Zippy befriends a boy her own age called Yitzy—okay, “befriends” is probably a strong word, because she has to switch from English back to Yiddish in her diary to explain just how incredibly annoying he is. He helps them build a sukkah booth, and Zippy is forced to admit that he’s useful, if irritating. He befriends Tovah, though, as well as their Uncle Moishe, who has been in America several years and works as a tailor at Brooks Brothers. Zippy’s mother is horrified to see that Moishe no longer wears his sidelocks nor his fringes, and Zippy sees that he also does not wear a yarmulke. There’s a huge fight in the house when Zippy’s father forgets the Sabbath to get some cloaks done for his work—her mother is horrified again that he would do such a thing, but he’s made almost twenty-five dollars and is pleased with his progress. They argue, argue, argue, and Zippy talks it over with her sisters in their worry. They come up with the idea to rent their mother a sewing machine, since they’re convinced part of their mother’s stress is that she is lonely and isolated.
Mrs. Feldman is overcome at this, but pleased, and when Zippy’s father brings out his violin to play, Zippy thinks for the first time in America that maybe things will come out all right.
Things do seem to start going somewhat better—Yitzy gets her mother some orders for dresses, Zippy and Blu are promoted to third grade, and they learn about Marie Curie in school. But Blu confides that her parents are fighting all the time, and Yitzy is fighting with his father as well. And then, a couple of weeks later—Blu’s father disappears! Just up and leaves the family! Their synagogue has a relief group for women and orphans, and Zippy’s mother passes along some work for Blu’s mother to do as well, but none of this helps Blu, who is in despair and falling further and further behind in her schoolwork.
In December, while Zippy is hanging around with Yitzy and Blu, they see a sign for a Russian Symphony Society of New York. She screws her courage to the sticking point and goes in to tell them that her father, Yasha Feldman, is in New York. They know him from symphonies in Russia and are ecstatic to hear of his arrival, and come to fetch him the next evening. He agrees to go back to playing professionally, and it seems that everyone is satisfied—her father, who gets to play his beloved violin once more; her mother, who is happy to learn that he won’t give up the sweatshop work and make them poor; and Zippy, because her parents are in agreement once more.
For Hanukkah that year, Zippy receives tickets to see the play Shulamith, on the Yiddish theatre circuit. At Christmas, Zippy goes with Miriam and Sean, their Irish neighbour and Shabbos goy (who turns down their lights), to a restaurant, only to be dumbstruck that Miriam seems to be quite at ease in the restaurant. She is hit with a shock of realization that Miriam and Sean have been dating secretly for some time, and meeting on the roof, and I have to quote this because it’s just a good bit of writing: “I drink tea in an American restaurant and eat a biscuit and I sit there very calmly and I know that my sister loves a goy, a non-Jewish boy, an Irish-American fireman, and I do not faint and I do not have heart blast or whatever they call it when people’s hearts stop and they fall dead, and I do not scream. I look very calm, but I cannot believe what I now know for sure.”
Zippy is distracted a bit after seeing Shulamith, and her mind is quite diverted to the theatre. More excitement when Blu’s mother gives birth again, and Zippy tells Miriam she knows her secret. Miriam says they’re so in love and want so much to get married, but their parents will just die. More specifically, her mother. Miriam points out that in Russia she’d be engaged or married by now, and Zippy says that marriage to a Jewish boy is much different from marriage to the non-Jewish Sean.
She puts these things out of her mind when one of Tovah’s friends invites Zippy in to see rehearsals of Shulamith, and Zippy takes this up with great gusto. Mamie, Tovah’s friend, is engaged to another of their friends, and takes up Zippy as a sort of surrogate younger sister. Even Mamie knows about Miriam and Sean, and Zippy thinks she might as well spill it to Tovah herself. Tovah is very surprised to find out that Zippy has known even longer than she, but Tovah has bigger things on her mind—she is organizing a union at her shirtwaist factory.
That year at Purim, Zippy begins to struggle a bit with her family’s identity. She is convinced that her mother wants to stay a greenhorn forever, living exactly as she did since she was a little girl, but the rest of her family is charging ahead with dizzyingly big dreams. Miriam and Sean—Tovah and her union—Zippy and her dreams of the theatre—they have all come very, very far in just a few months from their arrival in America.
Yitzy’s father gets a ton of orders at his shop and entreats Zippy’s father to help, but he has no interest in taking away from his rehearsal time. Mrs. Feldman is thrilled at the idea and the promise of more money, though, but Mr. Feldman declares he will never exploit another worker. Zippy is shocked at this turn of events and how suddenly her mother seems to be more Yankee than anyone else in the family. Zippy grouses about their fight and how they’re forced to have Reb Chicken Bones live with them, but the next day—he DIES. Zippy is tormented with guilt while the family sits shiva for him, but their Uncle Schmully comes to board with them to lend a hand.
Uncle Schmully wants to learn English from Zippy, and she finds him to be a quick learner and a good friend to her. Zippy goes with her mother to an uptown ladies’ house to fit her daughters for some dresses, and while that family is having their photographs taken, Blu’s father is the photographer. Zippy has no idea what to do, and her mother is just as at sea, and so Zippy writes into the Bintel Brief, the famous advice column in the Jewish Daily Forward.
In the meantime, the matchmaker has been coming around looking for Tovah, as their mother has decided it’s time for her to be married. But Tovah goes on and on about her union activities, and the matchmaker essentially gives up on her, causing another family row.
Just before the summer break, Zippy is promoted to seventh grade, and she’s almost with the rest of the kids her age. When her birthday rolls around in June, she’s feeling sorry for herself because her mother is too ill to make her anything good, but her father gets her tickets to a show and her sisters take her out to a café afterwards.
Later in July, the Bintel Brief answers her letter, saying that there is nothing to be done if the woman in question doesn’t want to find her husband. But much to her dismay, Zippy sees that Blu’s mother and Uncle Schmully have taken a shine to each other.
The following week, like a bolt from the blue, Miriam and Sean get married. They just run away and do it. As predicted, their mother loses her shit and insists that the whole family sit shiva for Miriam, just like she’s died. Zippy rebels for the first time against her mother, thinking that she’s trapped in her old village ways, but there’s nothing to be done. Her mother insists that no one even say her name. Zippy misses her sister desperately—Tovah is so busy with her own life, but Miriam would always listen to poor Zippy.
So when it turns up that Zippy’s mother is pregnant, Zippy isn’t at all excited. She misses her sister too much to be excited for a new baby, and she squabbles with Tovah, calling her unfeeling. Yitzy, of all people, finds out where Miriam is living, and Zippy sneaks down there trying to spot her going to the market. She sees her for a few days, spying-like, and then Miriam spots her, so Zippy trashes the plan entirely and quits looking for her any more.
That year by Sukkot, Zippy is feeling pretty lonely in her own home. Her father is busy with rehearsals, her mother with preparing for the baby, and Tovah with her union work. Uncle Schmully is the only one left who pays attention to Zippy, and he tells her not to waste her time with being afraid. So when one of Tovah’s theatre friends offers her a little job working backstage in the theatre, she jumps at the chance. She loves it and has an amazing time, and things start to look up a bit when she gets promoted to eighth grade as well. Mamie, Tovah’s friend, is planning her wedding and bouncing ideas off of Zippy, so she’s very busy and distracted from what’s going on at home.
Uncle Schmully tells Zippy that he’s reasonably certain that her father knows where Miriam is living, and has even been to visit her and give her some money. Then later that month, he confesses that he and Blu’s mother want to get married, so Zippy hands over the letter that was published in the Bintel Brief.
But just as things are looking so promising for so many, there’s a horrid tragedy. Zippy goes back to writing in Yiddish because she doesn’t have the English words for her grief. After a terrible fire at the factory where Mamie works, and a hundred women are killed—including Mamie. Tovah and Zippy are both devastated and their family deeply saddened. In the following months Zippy writes very little, feeling as though nothing really touches her—even when she gets a part in a play to fulfill a dream of hers.
Zippy’s mother has the baby—a little boy they name Yossel (Joseph), but he lives only a week. Things are so bleak at their house that Zippy is afraid her uncle will leave—the only person in the house who treats her like an equal and still remembers that she’s around.
But finally on the night of Zippy’s debut in Shulamith, she spies Miriam and Sean in the audience for her! Afterwards they come backstage and embraces all around, Zippy and Miriam and Sean and Uncle Schmully, and Schmully convinces them to come back to the tenement with them. Oh, it’s really beautifully evocative—“’Mama!’ Miriam shouts as she bursts through the door with Sean right behind her. ‘Mama, I am alive. You cannot make me dead. Mama, I am alive and I love you.’”
The end. In the epilogue, we learn that Zippy becomes a famous star of the Yiddish stage and marries Yitzy, who has become a millionaire in the cloak trade. They work to rescue Jewish children during the Second World War, and afterwards move to California, where Zippy starts in the movies and is eventually nominated for an Oscar.
Rating: A. I love this one, and it has a bunch of different themes that intertwine very nicely. At its core the book is about identities and beginnings—but interestingly it’s not Zippy who is so torn up about her own identity. Her family changes so much over the course of a couple of years that it’s no wonder Zippy is so distraught, but they really do love each other in spite of it all. It’s so sweet and well-told and while it leans a little heavily on the “America is the land of opportunity” trope, I can forgive it for being so great in a million other little ways.