In author Amy Bloom's most-recent novel, Away, the Jewish immigration story is told through the eyes of Lillian Leyb, a young, pretty, innocent woman who's escaped the deadly pogroms in her Russian homeland, but arrives in New York haunted by the memories of the family she's lost. The Yiddish theater scene on New York's Lower East Side during the fast-paced mid-1920s is where Lillian begins to try to put the horrors behind her -- all of them revealed in graphic detail throughout the 247-page paperback -- only to then be informed that her beloved daughter, Sophie, might not have perished after all. What's a mother to do?
Lillian sets off for Seattle, then travels up into Alaska, making her way back to Russia to be reunited with her daughter. The people Lillian becomes involved with along the way led some readers to ask: If I were in Lillian's shoes, what would I do? How far would I go -- emotionally, physically -- for love?
Some of those readers were gathered in the chapel at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park on Sept. 17 for a visit from the best-selling author, sponsored by the shul's Meyers Library. Some in the chapel didn't even wait for the program to begin before discussing ideas and themes from the book.
How Would You React?
"What would you do if your daughter was alive?" one woman questioned a friend. "I probably would have done anything."
"I don't think I'd become a whore," came a reply from a woman who described the book as "a Yiddish-theater melodrama."
More than 80 people listened to Bloom as she read several extended passages from Away, discussed some of the characters and answered questions from her mostly female audience on subjects ranging from the Jewish and Yiddish references in the narrative to the particulars of the novelist's writing techniques.
Bloom explained how she developed certain characters' personalities and cultural traits, and the fact that each chapter's title refers to a song: Those in the first half are Yiddish or Russian lullabies; in the second half, they're American folk songs or Christian hymns.
Bloom, herself a descendent of Russian Jewish immigrants, was raised in the Great Neck section of Long Island and now lives in Connecticut. She's the author of two other novels, two collections of short stories, and has written for publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and Vogue. She teaches creative writing at Yale University, and has been nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Bloom noted that, as a fan of 19th and 20th century fiction, she was heavily influenced in writing Away by Charles Dickens' works and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. She also noted that literature "is filled with examples of first-person accounts of massacres," something various cultures have been touched by -- not just Jews. So Away is not just a Jewish story; rather, it's a human story that's about -- more than anything else -- "the journey for love."
Lance Sussman, senior rabbi at Keneseth Israel, observed that after all she has experienced in her young life, Lillian is a broken character, looking for "something," and as her journey progresses, she moves away from her Jewishness "on her voyage of self-discovery."
Bloom herself noted that Lillian lived in a Jewish, very secluded world "and now she is out in the bigger world," and that the book moves from being just a Jewish story to one that is simply about "what you gain and what you lose in the immigrant process," in the melting pot that is America.
She added: "It is the journey that becomes essential."