A World Of Jewish Fiction
Wed, 06/25/2014
Gilman’s Lillian Dunkle is a myth-debunking character.
Gilman’s Lillian Dunkle is a myth-debunking character.

An Icy Ice Cream Queen: Rags to riches on the Lower East Side.

From the reeking slums of the Lower East Side to the rarefied air of Park Avenue and Palm Beach, Susan Jane Gilman’s “The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” (Grand Central Publishing) is a journey across the 20th-century Jewish American experience. Not your typical beach treat, this page-turner of a book is a tart alternative to the usual sweet summer refreshment. 

Lillian Dunkle (née Malka Treynovsky), the picaresque heroine handicapped by poverty and a crushed leg, is neither pretty nor likeable, but in the tradition of the hardscrabble American rags-to-riches entrepreneur, she’s smartly indomitable and emboldened by obstacles. A combination of Leona Helmsley, Tom Carvel and Becky Sharp, with a hint of Joan Rivers, our heroine embodies the best and worst traits of each. 

We first meet the self-described “weisenheimer,” now the elderly doyenne of an ice-cream empire, in the booming 1980s. Reviled by the press and under indictment for a series of charges, some trumped-up, some true, the titular Ice Queen reviews her life, from escaping the pogroms in 1913 to meeting President and Mamie Eisenhower at the White House. But Lillian is no Forrest Gump; she’s sometimes admirable, often despicable, but always smart and interesting.

The author’s research is meticulous. Gilman’s Dickensian description of the Lower East Side of the early-20th century conjures up the intensity of such classics as “The Rise of David Levinsky” or “Call it Sleep.” She’s also done her homework on the history of the ice cream industry; from a formula in the journals of a Renaissance polymath to passages about selling melting ice cream from a broken-down truck (the real Carvel story), the historical references are seamlessly woven into the story and add an extra topping to an already delightful tale.

The Lower East Side is part of our American mythology as much as the Wild West. Gilman’s talent is taking sentimental stock characters and turning them inside out. Instead of the loving and sacrificing parents of, for instance, my favorite childhood book, “All-of-a-Kind Family,” Malka’s parents are hateful and abandoning. The exigencies of the American melting pot have dissolved traditional ties; the newly christened Lillian adopts the Catholicism of her new Italian family with few glances back. 

Lillian’s admirable toughness hardens into an unpleasant shrillness as she ages; a frosty, marcelled cliché, her speech is sprinkled with venom and unconvincing Yiddishisms, and Gilman allows her character to evolve on her own dislikable terms. It’s a bold move and one that pays off in this myth-debunking story of a fully lived life.

Gloria Kestenbaum

Saving Jewish Lives In The Eternal City: James Carroll’s historically based ‘Warburg in Rome.’

The Warburg in James Carroll’s history-in-the-form-of-a-novel “Warburg in Rome” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is David Warburg, an American attorney assigned to the lives-saving War Refugee Board in the Italian capital near the end of World War II. But he’s not from “those” Warburgs, the prominent German Jews who made their mark in philanthropy and business and myriad other fields.

He was from, he would tell people, “the Burlington Warburgs … my father was a butcher. Not a banker.”

In Rome, Jews are his responsibility, as mandated by the WRB, which was established by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in January 1944. His job is to aid civilian victims of the Nazis and their fellow Axis powers.

“The lines of this book are fiction, but the dots they connect are history,” Carroll writes in an author’s note. “The novel’s main characters and their story are inventions of my imagination, though nothing in the account contradicts what happened in Rome at the end of World War II.”

Carroll’s sweeping tale features love and betrayal, loyalty and betrayal, chastity and sexuality, and the Holocaust’s aftermath, all in the interplay of the military, political and ecclesiastical powers that crossed paths in the Eternal City. Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, Croatia’s Ustashe fascists, and Palestine’s Haganah play roles in the plot.

A former Roman Catholic priest, Carroll writes with the detail of someone schooled in the minutia of Catholic belief and Vatican bureaucracy. His depiction of Jewish life is accurate, save for the description of Warburg’s long-discarded tallit, “the prayer shawl his father had offered him when he was sixteen.” A priest should know that a Jewish boy becomes a man, in the eyes of Judaism, at 13.

Carroll, whose 2001 “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” traces the Catholic Church’s often-rocky 2,000-year relationship with the Jewish people, presents a balanced picture of the Vatican and of Pope Pius XII, the Church’s now-controversial wartime leader. The pope appears as a cautious politician who never mentions the word “Jew” in his public pronouncements about endangered lives, but various members of the clergy who pledge their fealty to the pontiff put their lives at risk to help Jews.

Steve Lipman

The Romance Of Cairo: Juliana Maio’s ‘City of the Sun’

Juliana Maio joins the ranks of writers André Aciman and Lucette Lagnado, who were born in Egypt and the expelled along with their families during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Maio moved first to France, where she grew up, and then to California, where she attended university and law school.

Her first novel, “City of the Sun” (Greenleaf) is a romantic historical thriller, set during the early years of World War II, in a Cairo suburb known in ancient times as the City of the Sun. Her well-drawn characters include an American reporter, a Jewish refugee, an important German refugee physicist and a German spy, along with real-life figures King Farouk, American ambassador Alexander Kirk, British High Commissioner and Ambassador to Egypt Sir Miles Lampson, and William Donovan, the U.S. lawyer named to form the Office of the Coordinator of Information (the predecessor of the OSS and CIA). The intriguing Madame Samina is based partially on an Egyptian belly dancer known to be involved in espionage.

Like Aciman and Lagnado, she writes with a strong sense of place. Her depiction of Cairo is full of color and longing, as she tells of the cosmopolitan lives of Egyptian Jews, and an era that is no more.

Sandee Brawarsky