June 27, 2019

Tevye’s Daughter Comes to America: A Rewriting of the Jewish Immigrant Narrative

Waves of Jewish immigrants washed up on the shores of the Atlantic at the turn of the century in the hopes of fulfilling the American dream, not imagining the harsh realities in store for them on the other side of the ocean. They saw their new country as the land of opportunity. Those were the stories they were told. 

Rosellen Brown’s remarkable novel “The Lake on Fire” (Sarabande Books) takes the familiar immigrant narrative of the newcomer imagining the “streets paved with gold” and tells a different story.  The main character, Chaya Shaderowsky, leaves her home in Zhitomir, Ukraine, in 1891. Her parents and four siblings move to ironically named Christa, Wis., to make a new Jewish life. Yet once she receives an education and sees her family’s utopic farm in Christa failing, Chaya abandons what she still barely knows. Along with her prodigious little brother, Asher, they strike out to make it on their own in the great city of Chicago.

This novel captivates the reader because it varies from the traditional narrative of the failure of the American dream. Typically, the tale involves a starry-eyed immigrant arriving to the land of opportunity only to discover most of these opportunities unavailable to them. “The Lake on Fire” is about someone who tries to bypass the traditional narrative because she sees holes in the story she is given. Chaya is not wide-eyed and naïve, but someone who is a little weary before she even makes the trip across the Atlantic. She talks about her skepticism when the dreamer from the village, Faivel the bookbinder, describes an Eden-like America:

 “They will give us tools and the animals we will need to start our new life, and bring us in a wagon and show us to our own spot of clean dirt.” … But the children had to wonder what he meant by “clean dirt,” the planting dirt he promised. Their mother and Chaya and the other girls had enough trouble keeping the house straight, swept, swabbed. There was no such thing as dirt that was not an affliction…

That the children see the problem with the story and ask intelligent questions are indications that the adults leading them on this expedition are dangerously unprepared. From the beginning, Chaya critically examines the excitement of her elders and the idea of “clean” transitions. She is not a dreamer with her head in the clouds. She knows that dirt connects to intense, detailed labor; dirt is dirt is dirt; the transition to America will therefore be messy. Her experiences of the difficulty of housework tell her that the shadow of “affliction” will follow her in making a new home in this strange country. 

Chaya’s blind spot is that she believes her awareness of the messiness ahead will still lead to a moderate amount of success. Clearly familiar with the tales of Jewish girls coming to the city and ending up working in factories, after Chaya arrives in Chicago, she attempts to avoid the pitfalls of her fellow émigrés slaving away in the garment factories. Chaya sidesteps the shmata business and takes a job in a cigar factory, yet the work proves to be almost as arduous: “her fingers were nicked and a urinous yellow, her back was in spasm when, the trolley clanging into the distance, she walked towards Liberty Street just before midnight.” The urinous yellow of her fingers metaphorically presents Chaya’s low state because the dirt is in fact not “clean.” While she may hear the “clanging” of the trolley, it is in “the distance;” she can only afford to walk. Ironically, Chaya walks down Liberty Street — a name that would have one think that this is a land filled with freedom — but she is captive to a job that holds her till midnight, giving her no opportunity to enjoy that freedom. The book is hard to put down because even at these points when Chaya is at her lowest, she is a compelling, inquisitive narrator who does her best to navigate the difficulties that face her.

The book is hard to put down because even at these points when Chaya is at her lowest, she is a compelling, inquisitive narrator who does her best to navigate the difficulties that face her.

Brown writes her novel on the shoulders of many Yiddishists who told stories about similar struggles of survival around the turn of the century. But while the elders like Faivel the bookbinder and Chaya’s parents fit the molds of older characters from Yiddish tales, Chaya’s voice feels unique, as if it belongs to the next generation of these stories. Instead of a Tevye-like jocular male narrator, we have a serious, young girl in the center of this world, trying to use the liturgy and her family’s traditions to find herself in a strange land.

In Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” Tevye constantly fills his girls’ heads with stories and then, more often than not, a daughter selectively chooses lessons from these tales to do the opposite. The dream Chaya and Asher are fulfilling in Chicago is not just any American dream, but has roots in the concept of the Jewish dream of finding an autonomous homeland. And this dream also proves to be an idea promulgated by her elders without much foundation in the truth.

Brown’s novel has all the archetypes of the traditional Yiddish story: the father with his head in the clouds; the mother with her two feet planted firmly on the ground; and the child determined to abandon both of her parents’ worlds for a new frontier. Although the rift between parents and child grows wider, somehow the child makes a new start by ironically synthesizing the dreams of one parent with the practical nature of the other to forge a new path. Brown seems to have invented the character of Chaya to answer the question: What would Tevye’s daughters have done had he brought them to America? 

The answer is that her faith in her parents would wane while she spent her time trying to understand why their vision of America was unattainable. Their first dream, the hanging of a flag the community painstakingly created in Zhitomir with “Am Olam” embroidered on it and the phrase “Arise from the dust, throw off the contempt of the nations, for the time has come!” is literally torn to shreds when the immigrants try to raise it before their ship docks. While the elders mourn the destroyed flag, Chaya is angry at the false narrative that promulgated it: “Chaya was repelled by the spectacle of her respected elders reduced to gawking children, inept and unprepared .… Whatever it was he shouted when he ruined the flag, at that moment were they cursed? How else could the end have been written at the very beginning?”

From the first pages of the novel, Chaya tells us that the role of elder and child has been reversed and the ripped flag will somehow symbolize the end. She realizes that her parents’ version of the dream is doomed before it even begins, and the question she poses is less of a “how,” but a “why.” This moment of the tearing of the flag and the destruction of her hopes prompts Chaya to question whether their dream had been torn apart or whether success for her and her family was never really possible.

Against her parents’ wishes, Chaya rearranges the problematic narrative of a promised land she was given in order to create possibilities for her and her brother. Yet even in Chaya’s rewriting of this dream, Brown makes it clear that the fulfillment of any dream is more complicated than stories will have us believe. Transitioning between two worlds implies there will always be a shadow hanging over any new success one finds. Chaya flees Zhitomir, Ukraine, but the Wisconsin farm has the same shtetl.

After she arrives in Chicago, the first thing she asks is to be taken to “where the Jewish people live.” Brown ironically highlights the reality that Chaya will always be en-bubbled. Even after she begins rubbing elbows with the upper classes and thinks she has broken free, it soon becomes clear that the well-to-do are in their own bubble — their own shtetl if you will — one that is possibly more toxic than the one Chaya had inhabited.

When she goes on a shopping trip to a wealthy store and sees workers carrying a flag and picketing, her companion says, “Watching them is no help to anyone, it is only meant to depress us. We have work to do, too.” The way Brown cleverly parallels the different concepts of work for the poor and the wealthy shows how little those who succeed think about those without the opportunity to do so. When the shopping trip is complete, Chaya “had never in her life felt so shamed, and more so for her silence.” She had succeeded, but could not enjoy having climbed the ladder because it also meant she was part of the ranks of those who refuse to think about the less fortunate. Brown observes how, on some level, each element of society lives in its bubble and instead of individuals breaking free by popping them, they float from one bubble to the next. Chaya desperately tries to be part of two worlds, but finds it nearly impossible to forget the people she once worked alongside.

She actually offers a very Jewish solution: books and words. The Jewish people have always been the people of the book with a focus on education, and Chaya and Asher take to heart these elements of the heritage they received from their shtetl. 

“The Lake on Fire” is about the danger of telling stories that romanticize rising to the top because they bolster a false sense of reality. Brown repeatedly takes to task the particular tale of Cinderella, pushing readers to think about the pieces of the story we might be missing in this happily-ever-after tale. Before finding her upper-class fiancée, Chaya thinks: “I wonder if the prince loved Cinderella because he plucked her out of the ashes, not in spite of it. Because she was her terrible sisters’ servant while he was riding around the forests on the castle grounds and going to parties and drinking champagne and — whatever things they do at the castle. That would make a man feel much better about himself.” Chaya questions the entire premise of the fairy tale, wondering if the prince was even in love with the maid, or if he just wanted to feel better about an unfair universe that had made her a pauper and him a prince. Brown extends the traditional story and grounds it in reality by having the reader wonder if Cinderella would have been happy after the wedding day. What would have happened to her relationships with her poorer friends and would her royal family have accepted her?

There are many books about the failure of the American dream and the danger of believing in fairy tales, but Brown’s is different. She doesn’t just disparage the story people are told, but she actually offers a very Jewish solution: books and words. The Jewish people have always been the people of the book with a focus on education, and Chaya and Asher take to heart these elements of the heritage they received from their shtetl. Just as in “Tevye the Dairyman,” books are both the illness and the anecdote for the protagonists, who by consistently reading and educating themselves, are able to achieve their goals.

When the book describes the siblings’ finally achieving success, it says, “so they began their slow, word-by-word, page-by-page ascent into a life that would have been preposterous to imagine.” It was not hard work or luck that enable Chaya and Asher to rise in society’s ranks, but the attainment of a new language and the knowledge that came with it. The books they constantly steal and read and educate themselves with are what provide them with the foundation to enter the drawing rooms of high society, but also question the structures that support those rooms’ existence. Education expands the bubbles people live in and may be the one opportunity, Brown argues, that people have to see a bigger world, to transcend class systems. 

Chaya may read a great deal but she also decries the fact that the books she was given hadn’t prepared her for reality. Brown has written a book about being weary of the stories we read, and seems to have written the book she wished her protagonist had had to make her difficult journey a little easier — a Cinderella story that does not end the moment the prince marries the girl who wore the glass slipper.

Brown constantly reminds the reader that her novel doesn’t have all the facts but it is the acknowledgment of missing information that makes the novel feel real. The first sentence of Brown’s novel is: “For all the years of her life, this was the story Chaya-Libbe told. The missing parts stayed missing.” From the beginning, Brown reminds readers we are in the world of fiction and the story is circumscribed, bias and missing essential details. Brown adds a more accurate account of the American dream to the literary canon by forcing readers to acknowledge that even this novel doesn’t give the whole story. Let’s hope the next young girl striking out to make it on her own picks it up.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel teaches English literature at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.