Posthumous first novel offers pungent, nostalgic vignettes of Jewish life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side over the early course of the 20th century.
Matriarch Manya Roth, the narrator’s Bubby, emigrates from Odessa. Her husband dies on the way over from a lung ailment, and she is left to bring up their precocious son, Jack, on slim wages at Greenspan’s bakery. Manya’s fame as a cook spreads. An admirer, a typesetter at the Jewish Forward, sets her up in her own restaurant at 12 Orchard Street, where Manya, Jack and, later, Jack’s wife and two children, will live for the next 30 years. Jack, a dandy with an eye for dressing women stylishly, marries teenaged beauty Lil. He revamps her to look like a fashion model, and Lil eventually gets work as a saleswoman at Saks, though her lungs are scarred fatally from childhood diseases. Life on Orchard Street centers around Yiddish Bubby Manya, with her white hair and fetchingly full figure squeezed into a corset; the narrator accompanies her shopping to gather ingredients for her famous dishes of pickled herring and strudel. The family adopts a young black boy who shows up half-starved one night. They call him Clayton because his real name (Carlton) is too hard to pronounce. Other characters making their way through the author’s childhood memories include beloved Dr. Koronovsky, who leaves the Lower East Side for a golden career uptown but doesn’t neglect to invite Manya and the young narrator to his wedding, and Jack’s friend Rocco, a shoeshiner who “owns” Little Italy and is consulted on the perfect shoes to wear. Eventually, a summer sojourn to the farmland of Connecticut opens the family’s eyes to another way of life, while the advent of the cafeteria on Canal Street forces Manya to alter her old-style restaurant.
Poignant snapshots of a long-lost era and place: Widmer died last year at the age of 80.