People of the Books


Reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read. By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.

People of the Books


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By coincidence, I recently finished reading Shadow War: The Resistance Fighters' Literary Club, a historical novel by Debra Finerman, just as I started watching The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s alternate-reality series based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. 

The fictional characters in Shadow War are based on actual British, French and American citizens who took incredible risks to undermine the Nazis in occupied France. The Man in the High Castle, in both the award-winning book and the Amazon adaptation, imagines a post-World War II dystopia in which the Axis powers were victorious. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan control the United States and brave resistance fighters rise up against the brutality imposed by the Japanese and German regimes.

It was impossible for me to read Shadow War and watch The Man in the High Castle without thinking about the choices made by real resistance fighters during WWII and in other times and places where brave individuals resist tyranny. 

Exploring the subject of resistance, two recent highly acclaimed novels have the French Resistance at their core. Here’s some background on them, as well as biographies of several extraordinary individuals who resisted anti-Semitism from behind enemy lines. 

all the light

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its heroine is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who flees Nazi-occupied Paris with her father, a locksmith from the Museum of Natural History hiding a valuable gem from the museum’s collection. Marie-Laure’s path collides with a German boy tasked by the Nazis with locating illegal radio transmissions from the resistance. In an interview with Scribner Magazine, Doerr said, “In the war stories I read growing up, French resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who constructed machine guns from paper clips … My attempt in this novel is to suggest more complicated portraits.” 


Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale tells the story of two French sisters during WWII. Each plays a part in the French underground, and each faces moments of great challenge. Hannah has said her inspiration for one of the sisters, Isabelle, was the real life story of a woman who led downed Allied soldiers on foot over the Pyrenees.

train in winter

In A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, biographer and human rights journalist Caroline Moorehead follows the stories of 230 women, ages 17 to 67, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons and conveyed clandestine messages. The book, which the New York Times described as “heartbreaking and inspiring,” follows the women through their arrest as political prisoners of the Reich and their internment together at Birkenau. 

muriels war

In Muriel’s War (now out of print), Sheila Isenberg tells the extraordinary story of Muriel Gardiner, a meatpacking heiress from Chicago who left the United States to study at Oxford and then at the University of Vienna’s medical school (not common activities for a young woman in those days). When Germany annexed Austria, she helped Jews and anti-fascists escape and smuggled forged documents across borders, risking her life. Eventually, she returned to the U.S., but continued to use her wealth and connections to aid the resistance. 

like a bomb

Moving to a different time and place -- and a very different form of resistance -- Janice Ross’ biography of Leonid Yakobson uncovers risky work done by a Jewish choreographic genius in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of Stalin. A contemporary of George Balanchine, Yakobson created revolutionary dances for the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets. Although working in a time of official anti-Semitism, he addressed Jewish themes -- openly when possible, covertly when necessary -- using dance as political and artistic resistance. 

Janice Ross will be appearing at Spertus Institute on Jan. 17, sharing original research and rare archival dance footage when she presents Yakobson’s story. Learn more at

A Backpack, a Bear and Growing Up in the ‘90s

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Guest post by Joanna Rothenberg

I began working at Spertus Institute in March, which marks this fall as my first foray into One Book | One Community, Chicago’s celebration of Jewish Book Month. Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka was the 2015 selection, and for me, there could not have been a better choice.

Unlike many of my coworkers at Spertus, I was born in the 1990s, making Soviet Russia feel about as real to me as the Civil War -- important history, certainly, but not something that I personally connect with. Most of what I knew about the Soviet Union and United States relations could be traced to the “Miracle on Ice.” 

But Lev’s book opened a different door, one not about hockey, but about the exodus of Soviet Jews, an issue I knew very little about and I thirsted to learn more, asking my parents and grandmother about their memories. 

He made it relatable. He wrote from the perspective of a child, a child who – in spite of leaving everything he knew behind -- was excited to avoid school for a few months, excited for the next step in this grand adventure with his teddy bear at his side.

When I was given the opportunity to interview Golinkin, I jumped at the chance. I can honestly say the spirit in his book reflects the kind of person Lev is -- sarcastic, smart, and passionate about political issues both then and now. (You can read his opinion on Syrian refugees in Salon.) I can’t wait to meet him here in December.

Below is an excerpt of our discussion. 

Lev Golinkin

Spertus: How does it feel to have the book selected for Chicago's One Book project?

Lev Golinkin: Before I started to write, I put together a proposal that included a marketing analysis, addressing who is this book for? 

My dream audiences were college students, American Jews and book clubs. Through “One Book,” I'm reaching my target audiences. It's humbling, especially considering that this is a very personal book for me. I'm reaching out not just as a writer but as someone whose life has been heavily shaped by the American Jewish community and the Midwest.

I'm sure this has been a pretty hectic year for you. What has it been like since the book was published?

It's been interesting. The book came out last November. It feels like my publicist put me in a chair one day and started to slowly spin it, spinning me a little faster every day. For me, looking at the book on the shelf -- after working on it for eight years -- is still strange. It's even stranger talking to people who read the book.

There have been cool little moments where I realize I'm a writer -- like contacting a newspaper or a magazine and have them actually email me back. 

Your family members are key characters in the book. Do your parents agree with the way you portrayed their experiences?

I was very careful to make sure that was the case. Because my family members are not just characters, they're people with my cellphone number, who know how to guilt me into things. 

Overall, my parents really liked the book. There were places where they requested I make minor changes, such as the name of my teacher from the Soviet school. I portrayed my teacher as I remembered her, including the use of her real name, but my mom said I had to change it because "She was the good one. We lobbied to get you into her class because she was known for being nice towards Jews." I shuddered and immediately called my editor saying we had to change the name to protect her. 

Even my sister, whom I'd bet wouldn't read the book, liked it. I did agree to change her name, but refused the name she suggested. She said, "I want my name to be Abigail." Can you imagine Lev, Svetlana, Samuel, and ... Abigail? That wasn't going to happen.

Do you see parallels between your story and refugees today?

I see what these people [those coming from Syria and North Africa] are going through and it's surreal. Twenty-five years ago, that was my family. In comparison, our circumstances were easy. We had people who took responsibility for us, like those from HIAS and the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee]. And behind those organizations was the political will, money, and passion of the American Jews. 

I'm terrified that the refugees today are coming with nothing and no one is taking responsibility for them.

Do you still have Comrade Bear?

Yes. But he doesn't travel with me anymore. 

Want to meet Lev Golinkin in person? Visit for tickets to one of his two Dec. 6 appearances, the first in Highland Park and the second at Spertus.

Back in the USSR

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For the fifth year in a row, Chicago’s Jewish community will mark Jewish Book Month with One Book | One Community, in which a single book is selected as the focus of book discussions and activities. This year's book is A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, by Lev Golinkin. 

Key to his story are the difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances for Jews in the final decade of the Soviet Union, as well as the international movement that pressured the USSR to allow families like Lev’s to leave.

When the book was selected, a number of us on the Spertus Institute staff started reading at the same time. This resulted in a spontaneous day-by-day book discussion, as we compared notes about who had read what the night before, and what we thought would happen next. 

Among those reading the book with us was summer intern Adam Gruber (a New York University student from Wilmette, brought to us through the fine Lewis Summer Intern Program, a project of the Hillels of Illinois and JUF). Although, to me, the fall of the Soviet Union seems like yesterday, Adam wasn’t alive when the Soviet flag still flew over the Kremlin. That’s right, oh fellow old people (in this case defined as anyone old enough to be politically aware in the 1980s). 

To the Millennials in your home or office, and those even younger than them, the Evil Empire is history one learns about in a book. Those young people don’t remember headlines about Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika. The Cold War is the backdrop for spy novels and vintage James Bond films, not something recalled from one’s own past. 

Likewise, while I remember signs and posters that said “Free Soviet Jewry” or “Let My People Go!” boldly out in front of every synagogue, they have no such memories. But they should know about this, don’t you think? They should know that when reports of the state-sponsored persecution of Soviet Jews came to light, Jewish and human rights groups around the world came together in a movement advocating for Soviet Jews to have the right to emigrate. 

They should know that in 1987, before President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., demanding that Gorbachev allow Soviet Jews to leave the USSR. The coalition of groups that united around this cause created change for Jews on both sides of the Iron Curtain -- effecting Soviet policies, the lives of Soviet Jews, and the future of the Israeli and North American Jewish communities.  

when they come for us book

For those interested in learning more about that time, I recommend When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. In it, journalist Gal Beckerman draws on Soviet government records as well as hundreds of interviews with refuseniks, activists, and officials in Russia, Israel, and the U.S. This book won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named book of the year by The Washington Post and the New Yorker.

Other suggestions come right from author Lev Golinkin, who was asked about this in a recent interview with one of the aforementioned Millennials, Spertus Assistant Editor Joanna Rothenberg. (Find this excellent interview at spertus.ed/Lev.)

In addition to When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone, Golinkin recommends: 

David Remnick’s Lenin's Tomb. Remnick won a Pulitzer for this book about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Jack Matlock’s Autopsy of an Empire. Matlock was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, so he had a front row seat to the final days of the Soviet Union.

Ivan Denisovich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Lev Golinkin says, “This book shook the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn spent 10 years in the Gulag [labor camps]. He then wrote a story about it. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union made the mistake of allowing it to be published, and it stirred the USSR so much they quickly banned it. My father had an illegal copy, and my mom and grandma burned it when the KGB searched our house.”

Interested in asking Lev Golinkin some questions of your own? He will make two area appearances, one at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the second, a celebration tied to the start of Hanukkah, at Spertus Institute.) You can sign up at for tickets and to be eligible for book giveaways.  

Refugees who could be us

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New York Times OpEd by Nicholas Kristof ran this past Sunday titled Refugees Who Could Be Us, a name I've borrowed for this post. 

In his piece, Kristof reminds readers of well-known refugees who crafted lives of great significance. He says, "Watching the horrific images of Syrian refugees struggling toward safety — or in the case of Aylan Kurdi, 3, drowning on that journey — I think of other refugees. Albert Einstein. Madeleine Albright. The Dalai Lama." 

On a more personal level, he says: "In the aftermath of World War II, my father swam the Danube River to flee Romania and become part of a tide of refugees that nobody much cared about. Fortunately, a family in Portland, Ore., sponsored his way to the United States, making this column possible."

Kristof argues that we need to see ourselves and our own families in the images of today's refugees. The need for that empathy — and resulting action — is formidable. According to the United Nations, the current surge in people seeking refuge from war and poverty worldwide presents the worst migration crisis since World War II.

I have to believe that many Jews immediately have the reaction Kristof had when faced with pictures and reports of the current crisis: This is my family. If not me, then my parents or their parents. Almost all of us come from families who have left or been forced from their homes to make new lives in new lands. 

In that spirit, HIAS recently shared a video titled Why World Refugee Day is a Jewish Holiday . You can view it here. On the same webpage there's a link to advocacy work HIAS is doing for Syria refugees. A number of Jewish organizations are raising funds and offering support through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief . Other agencies providing help are noted in a recent piece in the Forward: Jewish Groups Lead Push to Open Doors for Syrian Refugees .

So how does this all tie to books? For the fifth year in a row, Chicago's Jewish community will mark Jewish Book Month with One Book | One Community , in which a single book is selected as the focus of discussions and activities throughout the city and suburbs. This year's book is A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka , a darkly comic memoir by debut author Lev Golinkin


It focuses on his family's experience as refugees who fled the former Soviet Union, a topic and perspective that has proven to be heartbreakingly relevant to today's headlines. In conjunction with One Book | One Community , Spertus Institute will again spearhead community events and provide resources for book groups and readers. On Sunday, December 6, author Lev Golinkin will make two area appearances, one at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the second at Spertus. You can sign up at to receive program information and be eligible for book giveaways.  

In last month's post, Coming to America , I shared a number of books by Jewish authors, who, like Golinkin, had fled Soviet Jewish oppression and made new lives with their families in the United States. 

For this post — just as HIAS proposes that all refugees' stories resonate for the Jewish community — I'm proposing that all books about refugee experiences are "Jewish books." 

Here are some, all by young authors, that I recommend. 

strength in what remains

Recognized with a National Book Award and multiple Pulitzers, Tracy Kidder is one of the most important — and inspirational — non-fiction writers working today. He is perhaps best known for Mountains Beyond Mountains , his book about doctor and activist Paul Farmer's groundbreaking work in Haiti with the organization Farmer founded, Partners in Health.

In Strength in What Remains , Kidder focuses on another extraordinary individual, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, known as Deo, who he meets when Deo is working for Partners in Health. Deo was third-year med student who, in 1994, escapes the slaughter in Rwanda and his native Burundi. With very little money and limited English, he lives in Central Park and works a low-paying job delivering groceries. Kidder follows his story both back — through the horrors he experienced — and forward, when generous sponsors pay for his tuition at Columbia University, he attends medical school at Dartmouth, and he is able to achieve his dream of building a clinic in Burundi. 

a long way gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is written by Ishmael Beah, who as a boy gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war. About it, author Melissa Fay Green writing for Elle Magazine said, "Beah's memoir is unforgettable testimony that Africa's children — millions of them dying and orphaned…hundreds of thousands of them forced into battle — have eyes to see and voices to tell what has happened. And what voices! How is it possible that 26-year-old Beah, a nonnative English speaker, separated from his family at age 12, taught to maim and kill at 13, can sound such notes of family happiness, of friendship under duress, of quiet horror? No outsider could have written this book, and it's hard to imagine that many insiders could do so with such acute vision, stark language, and tenderness. It is a heart-rending achievement. " 

Today, Beah, who came to the US when he was seventeen and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004, is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division Advisory Committee.

new kids

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens is journalist Brooke Hauser's inspiring chronicle of her year following the senior class of Brooklyn's International High School at Prospect Heights, where all the students are recent immigrants. They come from 45 countries, speak more than 28 languages, and have all dealt with tremendous obstacles. The New York Times called it, "A refreshing reminder of the hurdles newcomers to this country still face and how many defy the odds to overcome them." NPR's Talk of the Nation said, "The stories of these kids are simply astonishing."

i am malala

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace and certainly one of today's most well-known teenagers, now lives in Birmingham, England, far away from her native home in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. Her book, I Am Malala , is now in its 28th week on the New York Times bestseller list. About it, the Washington Post said, "It is difficult to imagine a chronicle of a war more moving, apart from perhaps the diary of Anne Frank. With the essential difference that we lost that girl, and by some miracle, we still have this one." 

Coming to America : Stories of Jewish journeys

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For the fifth year in a row, Chicago's Jewish community will mark Jewish Book Month with One Book, One Community , in which a single book is selected as the focus of discussions and activities throughout the city and suburbs.

This year's book is A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka , a darkly comic memoir with two intertwined journeys, written by debut author Lev Golinkin.


Golinkin, a graduate of Boston College who now lives in New Jersey, was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1980. At the time — during the final decade of the Soviet Union — antisemitism pervaded Soviet life. When immigration was made briefly possible due to international pressure, his family risked everything to make a new life for Lev and his sister. Thus the book's first journey is a tale of escape, told from the droll perspective of a nine-year-old caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Empire.

Years later, Lev, now an adult just out of college and poised to attend medical school, finds himself uncertain about his future. At the suggestion of his advisor, he sets out on a second journey, this time to retrace his family's odyssey as refugees. To offer his thanks, he locates the strangers who fought for his family's freedom and helped them begin a new chapter in a new land.

Although A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is Golinkin's first book, reviewers have praised his ability to find biting humor and emotional truth in the trying episodes of his childhood. The New York Times called the book, "a hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family's escape from oppression... whose drama, hope and heartache Mr. Golinkin captures brilliantly." The Wall Street Journal said Golinkin "manages to capture at a visceral level the feelings of many of the million Soviet Jews who left their homeland at the Cold War's end."

In conjunction with One Book | One Community, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership will again spearhead community events, with a series of programs beginning in October about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. (Mark your calendar for Sunday, December 6. Capping the program series, author Lev Golinkin will make two area appearances, one at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the second, a celebration tied to the start of Hanukkah, at Spertus Institute.) You can sign up at to receive program information and be eligible for book giveaways.

When the Golinkin family left the former USSR, they did so as part of a wave of more than a million Jewish emigrants. Of those, it is estimated that 325,000 came to America. Like the Golinkins, many families were assisted by HIAS(the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), both during stopovers in Europe (often in Austria and Italy, some lasting months) and as they settled into new lives. HIAS runs a fascinating website—which you can find at—with videos of Soviet Jewish immigrants recounting their own stories.

Two authors are among those featured on the HIAS site, Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis. Like Lev Golinkin and an impressive contingent of other writers, their experiences as Jewish immigrants from Soviet Russia has found its way into (and in some cases, inspired) their writing.

These authors' memoirs and novels are personal and often unflinching remembrances from the time of Perestroika and Glasnost. They are also are part of a long and important tradition of Jewish immigrant writing. Here are some to explore.

little failure

If the team of young Soviet Jewish writers had a captain, it would be Gary Shteyngart, the most well-known of the bunch. He has written several novels that mine his Russian background for characters, side-splitting humor, and wicked story twists. But in his fourth book, Little Failure: A Memoir, he lays out the truth (as he sees it) of his own American immigrant experience. The book was named a best book of the year by publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker.

free world

In his debut novel The Free World, David Bezmozgis uses his own family's emigration from Latvia as a foundation for a complex intergenerational tale. Named a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Globe and Mail's Best Books of the Year for 2011.


Formerly a teacher and assistant principal, Nadia Kalman now works as a writer-in-the-schools with Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City. In The Cosmopolitans, she mischievously conjures the Molochniks, a Jewish family who fled the Soviet Union and landed in Stamford, Connecticut (just like her own family did).

panic in a suitcase

In 2014, the National Book Foundation named Yelena Akhtiorskaya a "5 Under 35" honoree. Her debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, tells the story of the Nasmertovs, who left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. NPR called it a "uniquely American work of fiction... a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author." 

Jewish LGBT reading list

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Among religious groups in the US, Jews are among the biggest backers of same-sex marriage, according to data gathered by the Public Religion Research Institute. Jews polled at 77% in support, behind only Buddhists (who polled at 84%). 

Although there is range of opinion in the Jewish community on this issue (like every other), thirteen Jewish groups — representing Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative streams of Judaism — were among those that joined the brief filed by the ADL in Obergefell v. Hodges. It was the decision on this case, announced by the Supreme Court last week, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

To mark that decision, I'm dedicating this post to a few favorite Jewish LGBT books. These suggestions come from my own reading, conversations with friends, and recommendations from Tablet Magazine and the Jewish Book Council.

A great place to start is with Joel Derfner's Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family. Written in 2013, it begins with Derfner's boyfriend proposing at a time when there was nowhere in the US where it was legal for them to wed. When that changes, they confront questions ranging from the wording of their ketubahto the very definition of what constitutes an American family. LGBT Weekly called it a "thoughtful look at marriage, wrapped in wry humor."

For those fascinated by the legal cases that changed US law on same-sex marriage, there's Then Comes Marriage, written by renowned litigator Roberta Kaplan and published earlier this year. In it, Kaplan takes readers behind the scenes of United States v. Windsor, the case that defeated the Defense of Marriage Act. This is a gripping account of a significant moment in US history.

Joy Ladin's 2012 powerful memoir Through the Door of Life was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Ladin is an openly transgender professor who holds the David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women. About her book, The Huffington Post said. "On the face of it, [this] is the story of how Jay Ladin transitioned into living as Joy Ladin. But it's Ladin's relationship with Judaism that anchors this book and makes it stand out."

On the fiction shelf, All I Love and Know is a new novel by Judith Frank, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Called "brilliant" by the Boston Globe, it is an emotional family drama about a gay Jewish couple who become guardians to two children whose parents were killed in the bombing of a Tel Aviv café.  The story takes place in Jerusalem and Northampton, MA, and it tackles tensions in politics, parenting, and finding one's place in a new breed of family.

Marjorie Ingall, a columnist for Tablet magazine who often writes about families, recommends Wide Awake by David Levithan. I haven't read it but her description certainly makes me want to. She calls it "a gay young-adult love story set against the election of the first gay Jewish president. It's funny, fierce, wishful, and sweet." (For a beautiful article about the how the Supreme Court ruling touched Ingall's own family, see A Love Supreme.)

Graphic novels and serious subjects

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"Comics were once for superhero action stories," said cartoonist Alison Bechdel in an interview with HuffPostLive. "That was pretty much all they did, and then people started pushing the boundaries."

Bechel is a MacArthur Fellow (recipient of what's commonly referred to as a genius grant) who sees herself as a graphic memorist. Her bestselling graphic novel, Fun House, was nominated for a National Book Critics Award and is now a Broadway musical.


Bechel credits Art Spiegelman, who penned his father's haunting story of surviving the Holocaust as the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus, as having paved the way for her to tackle serious subjects.

"Spiegelman's 'Maus' changed comics forever," she said. "Comics now can be about anything — any topic that's as serious as you can come up with."

In fact, the influence of Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is so great that it's hard to quantify. It is credited with altering not only how we see comics, but also the wider worlds of literature and the way history is conveyed about the Holocaust. Schools use it to teach in fields ranging from history to psychology, and it has spawned an industry of academic research and literary criticism.

bintel brief

Today, a new generation of cartoonists are using graphic novels to tackle tough subjects. One of these artists is 27-year-old Liana Finck, whose first book,A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, brings to life the trials and triumphs of Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side.

On Thursday, May 7 at 6 pm, Liana Finck will be visiting Chicago to discuss her work in a free presentation at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where her original drawings, etchings, and sketches for the book are on display in the first floor vestibule gallery through July 19.

Finck, a recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, was inspired by an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward beginning in 1906. Called A Bintel Brief(Yiddish for "A Bundle of Letters"), the column was a precursor to Dear Abby and all the advice columns that followed.

In discussing A Bintel Brief, Finck explains the importance of the letters she adapted for the book. She says, "The Forwardwas a lifeline for Jewish immigrants in New York during the first half of the 1900s. Its beloved advice column…introduced by the paper's legendary editor Abraham Cahan, [was] full of the kind of raw desperation and hopefulness we all feel, under everything."

In her adaptation, Finck imagines that Abraham Cahan climbs out of a notebook of collected letters, right into her New York apartment in the present day. As their friendship develops, Cahan shares letters from readers who seek relationship and career advice, solutions to complicated family problems, and strategies for dealing with the dark clouds of depression. Although from an earlier time, these letters — and the advice Cahan gave in return — still resonate.


Unterzakhan by Leela Corman from 2012, is another graphic novel that portrays the world of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. Unterzakhn(Yiddish for "Underthings") tells the story of twin sisters, children when the book begins, who end up taking very different paths as they navigate the limited and sometimes seedy choices then available to young women and struggling immigrants. The book received rave reviews from an impressive array of publications, with Publishers Weekly calling it, "beautifully drawn and hard to forget," and Comic Book Reporter praising it as "fantastic, particularly when Corman infuses her female characters with a snarl or a sneer, conveying a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a single panel."

lena finkle

The search for answers that drives A Bintel Brief and Unterzakhn is also front and center in another graphic novel, one that also touches on immigration, but the in America of today. Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is by Anya Ulinich, author of the award-winning Petropolis. In it, Ulinich, an alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, paints a painfully funny, shamelessly personal portrait of the post-divorce life of a young Russian immigrant (not unlike Ulinich herself) who seeks love and finds herself. (For a wonderful interview with Anya Ulinich, check out this column from — where else? — the Forward: Anya Ulinich Makes Her Graphic Debut.) For more recommendations of graphic novels about the Jewish experience, visit the website of the Jewish Book Council at and search for "Graphic Novel."


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