Wed. September 12
Pushkin Becomes a Little Girl’s Passport
No Holocaust books, and no Hanukkah books.
Those were my two restrictions as I looked for books for middle-grade readers in which Jewish faith and traditions were deeply embedded into the story and the characters’ lives. No Holocaust books, because there’s more to Jewish life than Jewish death. And no Hanukkah books because nobody wants to hear my lecture about how Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.” (It’s fun, but it’s not a very important holiday—nothing like the High Holy Days, or Pesach, or… I promised myself I wouldn’t do this! I’ll stop now.) But books which met my criteria were surprisingly hard to find. There are a lot of great picture books out there, and of course there’s the All-of-a-Kind Family series, which is for younger readers.
And there’s Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse. This slim book based on Hesse’s own family history follows a twelve-year-old Jewish girl, Rifka Nebrot, as she flees Russia in 1919. At the start of the book her family has already been broken up, with her older brothers having lived in America for so long that she never knew them. The family is further separated by the perils of immigration, and Rifka spends most of the book on her own—but not alone, since she’s a compassionate little chatterbox with a talent for finding friends and taking care of others.
The book isn’t perfect. The device of structuring it as a series of unsent letters to Rifka’s friend Tovah, written in the margins of her copy of Pushkin, sometimes becomes intrusive. And although most of the moral lessons of the book feel earned—especially the central lesson of love for the stranger, which suffuses the book and reaches its fulfillment when Rifka begins to care for and befriend a seven-year-old Russian peasant boy on Ellis Island—there are occasional moments which feel a bit too much like an AfterShul Special.
But the book is effective. The characters are sketched rather than shaded, but they still feel vivid. The gritty details, like Rifka’s battle against ringworm, make the past viscerally real, and the plot jackknifes around a surprising amount for such a short book. The reader gets a sense of how stressful all the sudden, unpredictable shifts in fortune must be for immigrant children like Rifka. She’s helpless against callous doctors, disease, the tumultuous sea, and the law. Although she never feels like a passive victim—and the end of the story is immensely satisfying, as she faces down the final set of officials trying to keep her out of the New World—her real vulnerability is one of the book’s quieter themes. Rifka’s disposition is bright, wordy, and judgmental, and those stances can disguise the fact that in this story she is decidedly an underdog.
There is Jewish faith in this story. Rifka prays (and asks, essentially, why she shouldn’t have a bat mitzvah, which is one of those slightly moralizing moments) and her father’s prayer shawl is one of her talismans. But she’s surprisingly uncurious about God or faith. She doesn’t ask why God has set so many hardships before His chosen people, and really, even her prayers are mostly about her family and her own hopes and longings, rather than forging a relationship with God. He’s simply not a character here.
Where the story is perhaps most Jewish is in its sense of humankind as a band of strangers in a strange land, and its slow, subtle development of Rifka’s relationship with her home country. Like many immigrant stories this is a book about negotiating two clashing identities; unlike most, however, the suspect “other” identity which must be integrated is the home country identity. Only in America is Rifka able to understand and accept the ways in which she is Russian. Only in America can she see a Russian as a vulnerable stranger—and therefore welcome him, as the stranger should always be welcomed.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos.com. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.