To guess from its title what this memoir-novel is about should not be a great challenge to the average Jewish reader of a certain age, and maybe even younger ones. The rise of immigrant families from poverty to prosperity while living in the wretched ghetto that was the Lower East Side is not an unfamiliar theme. Typically the climb to success is described by a young family member, who remembers everything, or has kept a journal, and who has also achieved some literary and/or intellectual distinction.
That this is the case with Elka, our narrator, will not detract from the pleasure of getting to know the residents of #12 Orchard Street. With painstaking detail, the author brings to captivating life her heroine, the indomitable Manya, whose cooking skill is exceeded only by the comeliness of her looks and the beauty of her soul. Her success demonstrates that outlasting poverty during the Great Depression meant not only dodging roaches and rats, but also doing your best with whatever good fortune came your way.
Manya, the author’s “bubbe,” has enriched the lives of those around her with her cooking and her kindness and kept her family together in the gritty world that was Orchard Street. This family fills the rest of the novel, as do the noble doctors, whose loving attention holds back the diseases that eventually claim some family members, and others who help the family to succeed.
As rich in character and eccentricity as any production of the Second Avenue Yiddish theater of its day, this memoir-novel imparts zestful life to grandma Manya, her family and other devotees.