Silbert’s hardcover debut is a pair of episodic novellas about two families of Jewish immigrants in, but never truly of, Chicago.
“The Free Thinkers,” the first and more successful of the pair, focuses on Ida, forelady in a dressmaker’s shop, who refuses to accept the role marked out for her—marriage to one of the interchangeable widowers her married sister Bessie keeps giving dinners to to parade her in front of—and instead pursues her freedom with winning single-mindedness. Even in the land of the free, however, being a free woman is a tricky business, ringed round with uncertainties, as Ida slowly realizes as she surveys the life she shares with watch-repairer Berman, who’s moved into her apartment without benefit of clergy. Cut off from her disapproving family, mired in a domestic routine as stultifying as any marriage, she yearns to emigrate to Palestine. But her determination to cut herself loose from her old life only raises probing, though repetitive, questions about what is means to be free, and how Ida might recognize the freedom she thirsts for. Silbert’s second, more ambitious novella, “The Idealists,” traces the fortunes of Yudl and Ryah Landau’s family over a period of 50 years. Silbert chooses moments that show the slanting claims on the family’s shifting loyalties: to the business of learning English and pledging allegiance, to their mother back in Russia and a stranger begging the affidavit that will help him escape Hitler’s Austria, to the backwards pull of their religious practices and their marriages. But the theme of idealism is too broad to supply the focus the epic canvas demands, and the episodes all too easily betray their roots as individual stories rather than a single coherent work.
Despite these differences, both novellas, sliding from laughter to warmhearted sentiment as they pass deftly through different characters’ minds and voices, show Silbert’s easy mastery of the Yiddish-American storytelling tradition.