THE RABBI ON FORTY-SEVENTH STREET by Ann Birstein
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THE RABBI ON FORTY-SEVENTH STREET

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Birstein is a fine novelist (American Children)--so it's not surprising that she has turned her family history into a novel-like tale, one that bubbles with domestic furies reminiscent of I. B. Singer and ripe dialogue worthy of Odets. Her father, Rabbi Bernard Birstein, starts out as Beril Bernstein in pogrom-prone Slobodka, Poland, a rabbinical student who agrees to an arranged marriage with skinny, bespectacled Basha Friedlander. . . whose family will help finance their escape to the US. First stop (after Ellis Island): Atlanta--where, amid oppressive relatives and anti-Semitism, Beril has to make a living somehow (""Butcher? What was going on in this country, anyway?""). But then--after the Leo Frank lynching--Beril drags Basha and babies off to Chicago. . . and there Basha dies of the influenza. So the kids are deposited with slovenly cousin Lily (who silently yearns for Beril), while Beril becomes a sanitarium fund-raiser, ""a cuff-shooter, well-dressed and dapper,"" and, missing Lily's signals, instead acquires a new wife in Norfolk: blond, plump, born-hausfrau Clara. Finally, then, with family re-assembled, it's off to a rabbi position at last--in Canarsic, Brooklyn. But nervous, un-modern, non-English-speaking Clara is a hopeless rebbetzin; Beril's Canarsie days are numbered; he begins to have nightmares about ""toilet deodorants on commission""--the salesman's life. ""If only there were some shul where he could be independent. . . without the need of a helpmeet."" And there is such a shull! The rabbi-less West Side Hebrew Relief Association on 47th St. near Broadway--where Beril makes Jewish actors welcome (even if they're not orthodox), mounts great all-star benefit shows (after winning over the tough Sophie Tucker, reducing her to Yiddishe tears), and presides over a stormy family: Clara's jealousy of dead wife #1 and the daughters' (including Ann, Clara's own girl) unsuitable beaux. Roughly funny as well as nostalgically tender--a small delight.

Pub Date: April 9th, 1982
ISBN: 0595089100
Publisher: Dial