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The Jew Store

The Jew Store
by Stella Suberman
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $19.95 

The Jew Store is a homespun and home-focused tale that at the same time covers religion, prejudice, generational differences and the profound question of what ‘home’ really means. Stella Suberman takes us back to her childhood stomping ground, a small Southern burg populated with everyone from a red-faced, spit-spewing Klansman to plump Miss Brookie, a college-educated woman who is trying to spread her religion of “helping people” to her backwoods town.

This autobiography, which reads like a novel, opens in 1920, when the Bronson family moves to tiny Concordia, Tennessee, to start a “Jew store,” a dry-goods emporium that seems to be the particular métier of Jews. Aaron Bronson is excited by the chance to prove his superior salesmanship; his wife, Reba, reluctantly pulled from her insular family in the South Bronx, struggles to keep kosher and to keep away her anxiety about not raising her children among Jews. At first the Bronsons are treated with suspicion—some of the locals even check for their horns—but the business is a success, and the town gradually takes them in as “almost kin.” Ultimately, however, their differences determine the family’s fate.

Suberman’s chronicle is informed by passed-down stories as well as her own memory, which begins half-way through the story. The stories have the delightful feel of having been told and retold around the family dinner table, and their language is a hefty sprinkling of Yiddish mixed with a heaping dollop of small-town Southern speak.

This book, however, is not just about one family, or even about one town. The Jew Store is a warm, thoughtful portrait of what it once meant to be an immigrant Jew with aspirations in the midst of America.