This interview was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
The Jewish immigrant tale has become a popular American creation myth, especially for readers who came of age in the second half of the last century. It comes fully imbued with hope, bravery, and a retrospective level of assimilative success, not to mention its own handsome national monument — Ellis Island.
The story is well established from a New York perspective. Thanks to a rich written history, from Henry Roth to Chaim Potok to Isaac Bashevis Singer to Betty Smith, most people know at least a portion of the Ellis Island/Lower East Side narrative. But Jews settled in other parts of the country as well: Massachusetts, California, and the Midwest, with a particularly vibrant community forming in Chicago.
Yet this piece of the story is still underrepresented in American arts and letters. The names of so many New York born-and-bred Jewish writers are canonical by now: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick come to mind without much thought at all; given another minute I could name two dozen more. Coming up with the names of literary Jews who identify their stories of origin with the rest of the United States — particularly the Midwest — isn’t so easy. Even Chicago’s favorite maggid, Saul Bellow, was born in Canada.
Ronna Wineberg’s recent debut novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), which was excerpted at Bloom this past Monday, takes a familiar narrative — a large Jewish family flees post-October Revolution Russia to make a better life in America — and roots it firmly in 1920s Chicago. The story of the Czernitski family, as seen through the eyes of teenage narrator Lena, is both recognizable and slightly strange. There is no Lower East Side, no Garment District. Rather Lena, her brother, Simon, her parents, and her numerous aunts and uncles play out their stories against the backdrop of Michigan Avenue, Independence Boulevard, Bittersweet Place (a real street in the heart of Chicago), the Art Institute of Chicago, the shores of Lake Michigan. Their world is subtly — but importantly — different from the one many of us have encountered before in literature. It gives us fresh eyes on a story we think we may have seen before. On Bittersweet Place is as much the coming-of-age story of the Midwest as a diverse and thriving urban center as it is Lena’s. I caught up with Ronna Wineberg to talk about the novel, the history behind it, and, of course, Chicago.
Lisa Peet: Aside from having lived there as a child yourself, why did you set Lena’s story in Chicago? Are you familiar with the actual street, Bittersweet Place, or did you pick it for the name?
Ronna Wineberg: Most fiction about Jewish immigrants takes place in New York. I wanted to explore a different setting. The Midwest has a specific sensibility, softer than that of New York. I imagined Chicago would be a less harsh place for Lena and her family. And Chicago is a beautiful city. Lake Michigan and the beach are easy to access; I thought they could become part of the story. Also, my mother’s family came to Chicago from Russia. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles arrived at Ellis Island and made their way to the Midwest. Because of this, it seemed natural to set an immigrant novel in Chicago.
An aunt and uncle of mine lived on Bittersweet Place before I was born. I’d heard the name of the street many times and I’d been there; the image stayed with me. When I began writing the novel, I immediately thought of Bittersweet Place as the street where Lena and her family could live.
LP: Is there actually a Belilovka, the Russian town Lena’s family escapes from?
RW: Belilovka is a real place. My grandfather was born there. However, the events in my family’s history didn’t happen there. I chose Belilovka because of the rhythmic sound of the name.
LP: What do you know about your own family’s history? How did it influence or inform On Bittersweet Place?
RW: The house where I grew up was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Although I’m a second-generation American, I felt as if I had a foot in each world. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my family’s immigrant past, and I didn’t quite belong in the world of my American friends either. I knew I wanted to write about this, and once I found Lena’s voice, she led the way.
For years, I didn’t know much about my family’s background. When I was in college, some of my cousins and I talked with my mother’s family about Russia. We sat in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We were riveted by their stories and decided to record the conversations on cassette tapes. We interviewed relatives on other occasions, too. The discussions were lively; people disagreed about what had happened in the past. My great-grandfather had been murdered in Russia. My great uncle, a man in his late 60s, described the murder to us and as he did, he cried. That moment stayed with me.
The family did flee from Russia, and my grandparents were separated for years because of World War I. I never learned the details of their relationship, but I was struck by the circumstances. The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on family history.
LP: How is the Jewish immigrant story different in the Midwest, and Chicago in particular? How did regional differences shape the trajectory of assimilation?
RW: In 1927, over a million and a half Jews lived in New York City. In contrast, the Jewish population of Chicago was 300,000 in 1933, nine percent of the total population. And by 1930, Russian immigrants made up 80 percent of Chicago’s Jewish residents. I imagine that Chicago was an easier place to live than New York, a less aggressive and less overwhelming city. People traveled there, like the characters in On Bittersweet Place, because friends or relatives lived in the city and because economic opportunities were considered good. There were neighborhoods in Chicago with a high concentration of Jewish immigrants, but nothing as densely populated as the Lower East Side.
In New York, immigrants lived in many areas, including the Bronx and Brooklyn. There were fewer choices in Chicago. But I imagine impoverished immigrants faced similar challenges in both places — learning the language, finding work, dealing with prejudice. Established, economically comfortable Jews in Chicago (like those in New York) created institutions to help: Michael Reese Hospital, an old age home, The Society for the Burial of the Dead. Chicago had a thriving community, regional newspapers, theaters, synagogues, and an institute with classrooms, gyms, a library, a synagogue, and a clubroom, where immigrants could learn English.
LP: I didn’t know that about Michael Reese Hospital, and I was born there! Writing the Jewish immigrant story has such a strong New York tradition as well. Who are some of the writers who inspired or instructed you? Anyone particular to Chicago or the Midwest?
RW: Many of the writers who inspired me set their fiction in New York. I was inspired by Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers. Also by Bernard Malamud’s wonderful short stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work inspired me, especially Shadows on the Hudson, a novel about immigrants who come to New York after the Holocaust, and also his short stories. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, their focus on women and ordinary experiences. David Milofsky’s Eternal People influenced me, too. His novel about Jewish immigrants who settle in Wisconsin gave me a sense of the scope of relocation and ways people tried to assimilate or not
LP: Lena’s art is a strong vehicle carrying her through her adolescence — were there any particular artists you had in mind while writing the novel? Or artists’ narratives? (My Name Is Asher Lev comes to mind for me, a huge favorite of mine as a teenager.)
RW: My Name is Asher Lev was a favorite of mine, too. I didn’t have a particular artist or narrative in mind while writing On Bittersweet Place. I admire visual artists and have a kind of wonder at what they create. I loved to draw as a child. I wanted to be an artist then, to take art classes on weekends or after school, but this wasn’t possible. I took drawing classes in college and oil painting classes later as an adult. I draw cartoons now and would like to paint again. My interest in art rose to the surface as I wrote the book. Lena’s connection to art deepened with each draft, became an important part of her character, and a vehicle to save her from the difficulties she faced.
LP: You started writing when you were working as a legal defender, and now you’re an editor at Bellevue Literary Review. Aside from the knowledge that comes with time and experience, how has that career shift changed the way you feel about your own writing?
RW: I’ve become more serious about writing. Law is an unforgiving profession in terms of time. When I was a public defender, I didn’t have time to write in a consistent way. The work was demanding (and very interesting). I couldn’t steal time from a case to write; I couldn’t shortchange a client. My work at the Bellevue Literary Review has helped me become more committed to writing, too. The work has broadened my awareness of the subjects people write and care about and broadened the type of fiction I’ve read. I’ve learned from editing at the journal that writing is truly re-writing and revision shapes a story. And working with the other editors, who are also writers, has encouraged me to think more deeply about the importance of the written word.
LP: Bellevue Literary Review is interested in the intersection of medicine and literary language. There is a lot of pathology in On Bittersweet Place—mental and physical illness, cancer, the grandmother’s gradual wasting away, an uncle’s mysterious (but definitely not unearned) death, but the family is very much outside the orbit of modern medicine. Can you comment a bit on that, and do you feel that your work with has BLR influenced the way you look at illness/medicine as a writer?
RW: [Lena’s mother] Reesa views doctors with distrust. She doesn’t want her niece to consult a doctor. The family is superstitious: if you don’t go to a doctor, you won’t need one. So much of the characters’ energy goes into surviving and learning about the new culture; medicine and doctors are peripheral unless there’s a crisis. There is pathology in the book, but I view that as the stuff of life, events a child may encounter and try to understand.
The BLR has influenced how I look at illness and medicine as a writer. I’ve read lots of stories about the medical world. I’m more aware now of medicine’s triumphs, limitations, and disappointments, of the randomness of life. And I’ve learned that a medical experience or illness in itself isn’t enough to drive a piece of fiction.
LP: Do any of the characters from your short fiction collection, Second Language, make an appearance in On Bittersweet Place (disguised or otherwise)?
RW: That’s an interesting question. There is a connection between characters in Second Language and On Bittersweet Place. Saul Chernoff, from “The Coin Collector,” was born in Russia. He would have been a friend of Simon’s and played basketball with him. He might even, disguised, be Simon (they both have auburn/reddish hair), but Simon wouldn’t have Saul’s harshness. In the story, “Second Language,” Fay Minskacoff and her husband, Max — not the same as [Lena’s boyfriend] Max from the novel — were friends with Lena and Simon when they were young. The story, “The Doctor” has overlap as well. When Mel Hempill was a boy, he and his family struggled and lived in a boarding house. I imagine he grew up in Chicago, possibly near Lena’s family.
LP: The novel left me with so many questions about the characters’ futures — I found I was really invested in them. Where do Lena and Max go from here? What will her family do with their slightly-tainted-but-very-much-needed insurance money? How will her father wrestle with his conscience? What will become of her uncle and aunt, Abie and Ida, who move to Poland at the novel’s end? (This last one breaks my heart a little.) When you finished, were you glad to say goodbye to this family, or do you still think about what will happen to them outside the covers of the book?
RW: I’m happy you were invested in the characters. When I finished the novel, I was very sorry to say goodbye to them. Originally, I wrote an epilogue for the book, but decided not to include it. Unfortunately, you are right about Abie and Ida and the two children they will have in Poland. I still think of what will happen to all the characters outside the covers of the book. I imagine dialogue and scenes. For example, Max would have given Lena more of a musical education and told her with exuberance: “Chicago is the jazz capital of America.” I imagine what happens to the characters as the years pass — where people end up, who dies when — and also what happens to the city of Chicago. Everything changes.
Click here to read an excerpt from Ronna Wineberg’s On Bittersweet Place.