Three Immigrant Tales Test Genre’s Flexibility
Wed, 06/19/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
The tensions felt by newcomers in foreign settings color the plots of several new novels.
The tensions felt by newcomers in foreign settings color the plots of several new novels.

In his memoir and essays, Andre Aciman has captured the inner life of exile, what it’s like to stand in one place and be reminded of another, to long for that other place, even knowing it no longer exits. He embraces his new land of America, while Egypt and Europe, his motherlands, are very present. A masterful writer, Aciman is most at home in the place of not feeling at home, anywhere.

The narrator of Aciman’s new novel, “Harvard Square” (Norton), sounds like Aciman. He’s a Jewish immigrant who was expelled from Egypt when he was 14 and, in 1977, is a Harvard graduate student. The story of his friendship with a Tunisian cab driver he meets at Café Algiers in Cambridge is bookended by an account of the narrator taking his son to Harvard as part of their college tour, and trying to interest his son in the monuments of his past. Aciman has said that all of his stories have what he calls a fast-forward moment, bridging the then with life now.

The friend from Tunis is known as Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov, and at the café he’s sometimes called Che Guevara or the revolutionnaire. He’s smart, opinionated and charming. “He foresaw what people might do or say, figured things out even when he couldn’t understand the first thing about them, and sniffed out deceit and shortcuts most mortals were simply unaware even existed.”

Kalaj was a great talker, and much of his effort went toward attracting the attention of women. At Café Algiers, he held court at the center table, not just to be seen but to see who was coming and going. He prefers shade to sunlight, “like almost everyone born and raised on the Mediterranean.” For the two men, this café in the shadow of Harvard is their imaginary Mediterranean café on the beach — it brought Kalaj back to Tunis as it brought the narrator back to Alexandria.

The narrator reflects, “I was, it occurred to me, no different from Kalaj. Among Arabs he was a Berber, among Frenchmen an Arab, among his own a nothing, as I’d been a Jew among Arabs, an Egyptian among strangers, and now an alien among WASPs, the clueless janitor trying out for the polo team.”

The summer that the two men meet — 1977, the summer Sadat visits Israel — the narrator has just failed his comprehensive exams and is preparing to take them again, pressured to pass this time. In Kalaj, he finds a friend who understands him and his attempts at assimilation, but who also tests his limits.

When the narrator returns to Harvard Square as an older man, he resists visiting Café Algiers. He speaks of memory, a theme that permeates Aciman’s work. “As if in order to experience this thing called the past, I needed distance, temperance, tact, an inflection of sloth and humor even — because memory, like revenge, is best served chilled.”

This is Aciman’s third novel, after “Call Me By Your Name” and “Eight White Nights.” His first book, “Out of Egypt,” is a gem of a memoir. “Harvard Square,” a semi-autobiographical novel that grew out of a story published in The Paris Review. Aciman teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he directs the Writer’s Institute.

A.J. Sidransky impressive debut novel is out of a little-known slice of Jewish history. It’s a murder mystery, a father-son tale, and an-only-in-New York story.

“Forgiving Maximo Rothman” (Berwick Court) invokes the Dominican Republic’s role in saving Jews during the Holocaust. At a time when the gates of most countries were closed to Jews, the Dominican Republic, under the leadership of Raphael Trujillo, granted sanctuary to about 850 European Jews. The first group arrived in 1940, and established a settlement in Sosua, on the northern coast of the island, where they thrived.

In recent years, the Jewish experience in Sosua has received some cultural attention, with an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a musical piece by playwright Liz Swados, involving Jewish and Dominican kids. Sidransky, whose great-uncle and aunt were granted sanctuary in Sosua, accentuates the positive ties between Jews and Dominicans.

The novel is set in Washington Heights, where waves of refugees and immigrants have settled, including German Jews and later Dominicans, Russian Jews and Mexicans. Sidransky, who lives there now, knows his neighborhood well. His big-hearted Russian NYPD detective named Tolya is addicted to thick Dominican coffee. The German Jews enjoy the cakes that their relatives bring from bakeries in places like Monsey and Teaneck, as the remaining local kosher places no longer bake on the premises. The title character, Maximo Rothman, who made his way across Europe to the Dominican Republic to New York City, prefers Dominican specialties to the kosher food his Orthodox daughter-in-law, the wife of his ba’al teshuvah son, insists that he eat. Rothman, who lost all of his family in the Holocaust, is still angry at God.

When Rothman is murdered, many suspect a Dominican kid who visits the older man as part of his probation program, but Tolya is convinced that the kid loved Max, who helped him to reconcile with his own father. Max’s words, “Life is too short to make enemies of those we love,” resonate for Tolya too, as he reflects on his own father and the traumas they experienced in the former Soviet Union. The case also inspires Tolya to reconsider the Judaism he has mostly abandoned, even as he comes face-to-face again with the Orthodox rabbi who callously told his parents, knowing all they had gone through, that he wasn’t halachically Jewish.

Headlining his chapters with dates, Sidransky weaves together the present and Rothman’s experience in the Dominican Republic, revealed through his hand-written diaries. The novel begins on Simchat Torah, with Rothman’s son Shalom and his son, who is autistic, dancing with the Torah. Shalom comments on the joy of new beginnings, not realizing how much his family’s life will be changed. Lots of surprising twists, amidst the slopes of the Heights.

One of the pleasures of reading Jessica Soffer’s first novel, “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is the opportunity to meet characters you probably haven’t encountered before. One is Lorca, a troubled young woman who inflicts pain on herself as she tries to attract the love of her mother, a very busy chef about to send her daughter off to boarding school against her wishes. And there is Victoria, an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant living in New York who teaches cooking and is mourning the death of her husband after a long and close marriage over traumatic times. The novel is told in the alternating voices of Lorca and Victoria.

Lorca, as described by Victoria is a “gorgeous combination of ancient and brand-new.” Soffer writes, “Something in her eyes — perhaps the depth and sheen of them, how they seemed to summon the world around her and refract it like an artifact window — aged her in a way that had nothing to do with years.”

Soffer’s descriptions of food as well as emotional connections are richly layered. Lorca studies cooking with Victoria, and, despite their differences in age, their conversations soon cover much more ground than the dishes they are preparing. Victoria teaches the young girl to make the complicated Iraqi national dish, Masgouf.

The author is the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor who came to the U.S. in the late 1940s. She has said that she has always wanted to write about his culture, and that desire led her to write about food. Growing up, her strongest memories are the dishes he cooked, fragrant with cumin, cardamom and cloves. She includes a recipe for Masgouf, made with whole carp.

The title is drawn from an Arabic expression, “Bukra fil mish mish,” tomorrow, when the apricots bloom, which involves looking to the future with measured optimism. ✹ 

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