Jewish Journal

Books: Land of ‘Golden’ dreams and tarnished identities

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

Posted on Sep. 8, 2007 at 8:00 pm

When Jews at the turn of the last century wistfully spoke of the goldene medina (golden country), they meant just one place: America. The phrase evoked images of a land of "freedom, justice, opportunity -- and protection against pogroms," wrote Leo Rosten in his 1968 classic, "The Joys of Yiddish." But when "spoken in irony or sarcasm," he added, the goldene medina also came to signify "a miraculous hope that ends in disappointment."

Which makes the title of Jennifer Gilmore's debut novel, "Golden Country" (Scribner, 2006), especially apt. In her intricately plotted story, Gilmore deftly weaves fact into fiction as she traces the fortunes of three intertwined families of Jewish immigrants in early 20th century New York. The result is a compelling portrait of hopes, both realized and dashed, that explores questions of identity, self-invention, women's roles and the definition of success.

Embracing American culture in all its fluidity, the Brodsky, Bloom and Verdonik families navigate the tantalizing opportunities and surprising limitations of their new land. Solomon Brodsky escapes his shtetl-like neighborhood of Williamsburg by way of the mob, causing a keen sense of shame in his mother and younger brother, Joseph. Hardworking, dutiful Joseph ekes out a living selling household cleaning products door-to-door, but catapults to success when he invents the first cleaner miscible in both oil and water (which he calls Essoil, in tribute to his wife, Esther).

Neighbor and landsman Pauline Verdonik yearns to join Solomon in his new life of luxury; when she becomes his wife, she shares his success and exile from their families. Pauline's less glamorous, resourceful and plucky sister, Francis, marries the brilliant Vladimir Zworykin (another transplanted landsman), who later invents the foundation technology for television. Francis' long-held dream of stardom is first realized and then limited by her husband's invention, as she becomes the first star of Essoil's TV commercials.

Fellow immigrant Sarah Rosen Bloom is less lucky. Her theatrical ambitions are quickly defeated and she descends into alcoholism, even as her husband, Seymour, moves from salesman to gangster (under Solomon's wing) to Broadway musical producer -- miraculously surviving the transition back into "legitimate" business.

Moving back and forth in time, revealing deep ties strained by years of disappointment and resentment, Gilmore's story unfolds as an explication of why a marriage in the following generation -- between Miriam Brodsky and David Bloom -- is an emotional landmine for all.

While "Golden Country" is undeniably a Jewish story, Gilmore's characters move in decidedly secular worlds: theater, inventions, sales, crime. Like many immigrants before and since, these families seem to have shed all trappings of their religion when they set foot on Ellis Island (save for one shiva minyan that occurs late in the story).

Gilmore relates to her own Jewishness in much the same way. The writer, whose work has appeared in anthologies -- including the upcoming "How to Spell Chanukah," due out this fall -- grew up outside Washington, D.C. Although she attended religious school, Gilmore didn't have a bat mitzvah and characterizes her childhood home as "not very religious."

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Gilmore felt she "was probably the least religious person there, at least from this country." She became fascinated by "what made people Jewish.... I'd always felt 1,000 percent Jewish, but it obviously wasn't religious," she said.

While in graduate school at Cornell University, Gilmore saw her experience mirrored in many of the books she read in Jewish American fiction classes. Pursuing her master's of fine arts degree and teaching courses of her own design, Gilmore's academic work merged with long-held interests as she studied the myriad ways Jewish identity was being defined in America -- through ethnicity, culture, humor, even stereotypes.

"I wanted to deal with those tropes -- money, noses, intellect -- that are typically 'Jewish,'" Gilmore said. In addition, "everyone in my family was Jewish, and I was always fascinated with their stories."

Gilmore enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents when she was growing up, and was "especially interested in their experiences as immigrants in America," she said. After the death of her maternal grandmother, with whom she'd been very close, the family discovered years' worth of scrapbooks and diaries.

"My grandmother had been this amazing, hilarious storyteller," Gilmore said, and the writings she left behind captured her vibrant spirit. She had kept meticulous records of her daily life and thoughts, including details of her courtship with Gilmore's grandfather, Sid. "Every day they went out, she'd mark with a star. Some days, three stars. I never found out exactly what that meant," Gilmore said teasingly.

The intimacy of her grandmother's diaries helped Gilmore create the female voices in her novel.

"I loved their inner lives," she said, and she wanted to show how they struggled with desire and ambition, even if they had been largely thwarted.

But while she "originally had written a lot from [the women's] point of view," over time Gilmore felt she needed to take out some of their self-expression "because of the time period they lived in." Ultimately, Gilmore said, "I knew that seeing their lives through their son's or husband's perspectives was more appropriate."

Among her grandmother's effects, the family also found a self-published book titled, "Just the Two of Us." It had been written by the widow of the man (a distant relation, as it turned out) who invented the household cleaner Lestoil, which became the inspiration for the novel's Essoil. Like Gilmore's grandmother, this woman wrote about her romance with her husband, but she also wrote about how they'd come to America from Eastern Europe, invented a time-saving household product and become rich.

"I became interested in how that generation came over and invented things that people used in everyday ways -- Sweet N' Low, depilatory cream [invented by a rabbi in Portland, Maine] -- things that changed our everyday lives," Gilmore said.

She had also long been fascinated by questions of success and failure, of how we define those terms and how they in turn define us. "They both can be very painful -- I loved exploring the idea of some peoples' dreams coming true and some not, [and how] underneath it all, they're all in the same place," Gilmore said.

Gilmore also has family members who, like some of her characters, are involved in musical theater, and she grew up attending shows regularly. In her novel, she uses this quintessentially American milieu -- created largely by Jews -- for a dual purpose. On the one hand, attending Yiddish theater, vaudeville and Broadway shows offered struggling Jews an escape from the drudgery of their own existence. But it was also "the perfect metaphor for the immigrant experience," Gilmore said. Actors adopted stage names, just as Jews were often given a new name at Ellis Island; by acting, they took on different identities, just as many immigrants tried to create new selves in America.

"Everyone [in the story] is trying to be something they're not," Gilmore said.

Paradoxically, it is precisely these fluctuating identities that ground her novel in a time and place, yet, at the same time, universalize her story. Through the multiple perspectives and varying fortunes of her characters, Gilmore's readers are enveloped in a complex world, where the best of intentions have unexpected consequences, and all that glitters may not, in fact, be gold.

Jennifer Gilmore will appear with author Nell Freudenberger and moderator Bernadette Murphy for a reading and discussion at the Los Angeles Public Library's ALOUD program on Monday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. For more information, visit http://www.aloudla.org

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