Assimilation at Mid-Century
It is an oft-told story: inter-connected Jewish immigrants make good, then collide over the wedding that makes them family. Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore (Scribner, $25.00) is a poignant and engaging novel about the Jewish-American immigrant experience, complete with difficult mothers, Eastern and Western European culture clashes, and the rags-to-riches fulfillment of the American dream. Major historical events — the Great Depression, World War II, the invention of television — only footnote the stories of the fictitious Brodsky, Bloom, and Verdonik families. Pushing personal dramas to the forefront, Gilmore skillfully renders eras past.
The novel opens with the news of Miriam Brodsky’s engagement to David Bloom, and then backtracks for 200 pages and 40 years of their family histories. Solomon “Terry the Terrier” Brodsky, the mobster spawn of a nice Jewish family from Brooklyn, draws all the characters together. In 1925, Terry ran away with beautiful Pauline Verdonik. The Verdoniks and Brodskys of South Fifth Street were left shocked and shattered; younger siblings Frances and Joseph picked up the pieces of their respective parents and households. A few years later, young Seymour Bloom, a newly married Jewish Brooklynite, knocks on Terry’s door to peddle his encyclopedias. Impressed with his “goyish” looks and charm, Terry brings him into the family — a generation before Terry’s niece Miriam marries Seymour’s son, David Bloom, in 1957.
With one foot back in Europe and both eyes focused on the future, Gilmore’s characters dream largely and lavishly. Frances Verdonik, Pauline’s hirsute and pear-shaped younger sister, yearns for the stage. Joe Brodsky, a doorto- door peddler of cleaning products by day, spends his nights trying to invent a cleanser that will purify his family of his brother’s sins. And Seymour Bloom, so easily beguiled by a life of crime, looks for redemption in the art world.
It comes as no surprise that these three characters find financial success, that America is truly their golden country. This has become the norm for coming- to-America narratives. But Gilmore’s fabulous detailing of mid-twentieth-century Jewish family life distinguishes this work from the rest of the genre. From the cameo appearances by Mae West in a neighborhood scene and Irving Berlin at the Brodsky and Bloom wedding, to Esther Brodsky’s painful obsession with her daughter Miriam’s nose, Jennifer Gilmore has captured the stories that grandparents love to tell and has handed them down to us.
Liz Kilstein works for the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC.