Monday, January 20, 2014

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman, 2012 (a graphic novel)

"The book is a sweetly sad story, illustrating the difficulty of life in the early 20th century as seen through the narrow eye of a specific subculture." from a review in City Paper by Laura Dattaro 3/28/12

This graphic novel, whose dedication page says “For New York,” dramatizes the lives of twin sisters with chapters marked by dates that denote significant moments in the lives of the sisters. The first, 1905, introduces us to Esther and Fanya, and their family, residents of the Lower East Side. In the last chapter, 1923, they are still in New York, and although their paths had diverged, they reconnect.

It is easy to see why the author has dedicated this graphic novel to New York. She sketches the intensity of life in the streets and life behind closed doors. She does not romanticize the lives of early immigrants. She catches both the turmoil in the crowded streets with their pushcart markets, and the turmoil of tenement homes where the children often slept two to a bed and where babies were born at home. She has scenes in houses of prostitution and in theaters where burlesque shows were performed.

Her immigrants, who speak in Yiddishized “broken” English and sometimes speak in Yiddish, are all struggling, trying to find a way to survive. She builds her story around many of the problems they encountered: poverty, adultery, arranged marriages, illegal abortions, out- of-wedlock children, and religious, ethnic and class bias. Constructing different lives for the two sisters illustrates the possibilities and the pitfalls they both encountered.

This graphic novel is a useful introduction to Jewish immigrant life in New York in the early twentieth century, a place and time to which many in the American Jewish community can trace their roots.

To read about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, click here.
To read about the Eldridge St. Synagogue, now a museum, click here.
To read an interview with the author, click here.

People
Leela Corman - married to Tom Hart; author
Gene, Lizette and David Corman - relationship to author unclear

Places
New York City, New York
Gainsville, Florida

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