Yudl and Oth­er Stories

Layle Sil­bert
  • Review
By – May 21, 2015

Set in Chica­go, the sto­ries of Yudl, his wife, Ryah, and their daugh­ter, Ellen, give us an inti­mate view of Jew­ish immi­grants who fled the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion to Amer­i­ca. With not-always-appar­ent love and affec­tion for one anoth­er, they meet the chal­lenges with force­ful and often stub­born stead­fast­ness. We share the joys and con­flicts about free­dom in the new coun­try; we under­stand the loss either by inten­tion or assim­i­la­tion of cul­tur­al identity.

Ryah is here to stay, on a path to inde­pen­dence and cap­i­tal gains. As she set­tles on becom­ing a corsetière, her train­er tells her, With this you can do it. You won’t have to ask your hus­band for mon­ey. You will have your own mon­ey.” Not only does she go into busi­ness, but in time is the force behind their pur­chase of a build­ing, telling her hus­band in the same breath that they should start buy­ing land in Florida!

Ellen, the new gen­er­a­tion, is all about edu­ca­tion. She has heard the sto­ries from the old coun­try, sang the songs, and wit­nessed the impos­si­ble long­ing for all that was lost. On an imag­i­nary walk with her new­ly deceased grand­moth­er, they pass Ellen’s school. She tells us, This school which was my place in Amer­i­ca was some­thing I want­ed her to see and know.” 

Yudl, dear Yudl, is the most com­pelling and con­flict­ed. Stand­ing out­side his soon-to-be-fin­ished build­ing, he says, I’m going to be a landlord…and I don’t want to be a land­lord. What was a man who made his liv­ing on a Yid­dish news­pa­per, a mem­ber of the Poale Zion, a social­ist, doing as the own­er of a piece of prop­er­ty… and soon to be col­lect­ing rents?” In the next moment he is ush­ered into a fan­cy office, where a gen­tle­man with an Amer­i­can name begs him to chant the Kol Nidre.

You don’t under­stand,” he says to Yudl. I get lone­some for the old songs, for the nigu­nim.” Where should Yudl put himself?

The author point­ed­ly ends with a sto­ry set in Chi­na, as the rev­o­lu­tion from the north begins to strength­en. Ellen, a col­lege grad­u­ate, trav­els to meet up with her hus­band. They spend time with an Amer­i­can-edu­cat­ed Chi­nese pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics. One day, the three, sit­ting in a small apart­ment the cou­ple shares with Russ­ian immi­grants, wit­ness the Russ­ian sell­ing coal to a needy Chi­nese man. Watch­ing the trans­ac­tion, Pro­fes­sor Ma spoke. He must be a Jew.”

Pub­lished after the author’s pass­ing, the sto­ries are like­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Known for her pho­tog­ra­phy, Sil­bert wrote sev­er­al books and many short works of fic­tion. Eco­nom­ic striv­ing, pol­i­tics, and edu­ca­tion are, of course, under­ly­ing themes for all immi­grant tales — at once famil­iar and close to home, no mat­ter which cities our fam­i­lies set­tled in. Silbert’s sto­ries are an endear­ing homage to those who fled unbear­able con­di­tions but car­ried with them lov­ing mem­o­ries and a will to sur­vive with dig­ni­ty and strength.

Relat­ed Content:

Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

Discussion Questions