Zel­da Pop­kin: The Life and Times of an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Woman Writer

  • Review
By – January 30, 2023

In Zel­da Pop­kin: The Life and Times of an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Woman Writer, Jere­my D. Pop­kin pro­vides a lov­ing, clear-eyed, and intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy of his grandmother’s life. Hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly held a rel­a­tive­ly minor place in Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­ary his­to­ry, Zel­da Pop­kin (1898 – 1983) emerges here as a writer whose archive of nov­els, mem­oirs, and jour­nal­ism demands a fresh reread­ing. Her sto­ry — a sto­ry about our coun­try,” her grand­son insists — con­tin­ues to res­onate a half-cen­tu­ry after her death.

Zel­da Pop­kin may now be an obscure fig­ure in Jew­ish Amer­i­can his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture, but her biog­ra­phy inter­sects with a range of well-known authors. Born to immi­grant par­ents who set­tled in Wilkes-Barre (she would even­tu­al­ly revis­it the psy­chic strains of small-town Jew­ish fam­i­ly life in her nov­els and mem­oirs), Zel­da start­ed out in the twen­ties as a fledg­ling cul­tur­al crit­ic for the impor­tant mag­a­zine Amer­i­can Hebrew. She reviewed Anzia Yezierska’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, Hun­gry Hearts, sit­u­at­ing this key work of immi­grant fic­tion with and against now-canon­i­cal books by Abra­ham Cahan and Mary Antin. Lat­er, when she began writ­ing her own fic­tion, Saul Bel­low gave a luke­warm review — but a review nonethe­less — of her 1945 nov­el, The Jour­ney Home in Com­men­tary. And in the ear­ly 1960s, she spent time at the famous Yad­do writ­ers’ colony, con­vers­ing with a young Philip Roth and the for­mi­da­ble lit­er­ary crit­ic Alfred Kazin.

Zelda’s sto­ry, in Jere­my Popkin’s view, reflects the tra­jec­to­ry of many Amer­i­can Jew­ish women’s expe­ri­ence. He speaks of her hard-boiled view of human­i­ty” — a tough-mind­ed­ness that was no doubt a response to per­son­al loss (her beloved hus­band, with whom she worked in var­i­ous Jew­ish fundrais­ing orga­ni­za­tions, passed away ear­ly on in their mar­riage) and, above all, to bear­ing wit­ness to the hor­rif­ic events of the twen­ti­eth century.

Pop­kin focus­es much of his atten­tion on Zelda’s nov­els. Based on her expe­ri­ences observ­ing life in a post­war DP camp, Small Vic­to­ry (1947) was among the first works to con­front the impact of the Holo­caust. And Qui­et Street (1951), accord­ing to Pop­kin, was both the first nov­el about the cre­ation of the State of Israel and Zelda’s most sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can and Jew­ish lit­er­ary his­to­ry.” The biog­ra­ph­er holds that it was his grandmother’s fate to be over­shad­owed by more mid­dle­brow — and male — authors like Her­man Wouk and Leon Uris. But in con­trast to Uris’s much bet­ter-known Exo­dus (1958), Qui­et Street presents a fem­i­nized ver­sion of the events of 1948,” reveal­ing the dig­ni­ty” of Zelda’s female characters.

Pop­kin speaks with sad­ness about how defeat­ed his grand­moth­er felt at times; and Zel­da, he tells us, had every rea­son to feel defeat­ed.” The end of her lit­er­ary career was marked by a sev­en­teen-year gap between nov­els; she was always scram­bling for mon­ey; and the NYPL declined the gift of her lit­er­ary archive (which now resides at Boston University).

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Pop­kin makes a com­pelling case for Zelda’s renewed impor­tance. He argues that her 1968 nov­el, Her­man Had Two Daugh­ters—a roman à clef about small-town Jew­ish life that close­ly resem­bles her immi­grant family’s expe­ri­ences in the shtetl (ghet­to?) of ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Wilkes-Barre — deserves par­tic­u­lar reconsideration. 

Zel­da Pop­kin har­bored a rich lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion and an insider’s view” of the ten­sions in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish life.” Will her work get the revival that it’s owed? That much remains to be seen. But Jere­my Popkin’s faith-keep­ing, gran­u­lar por­trait is a revival of its own.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions