Immigration Is Still the Big Story

Iran, Russia and South Africa figure in books by five finalists for 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for emerging writers

More than a century after massive waves of European Jews fleeing persecution and pogroms began landing on the shores of the Goldeneh Medineh, sparking Jewish immigrant literature like Anzia Yezierska's "Bread Givers" and Abraham Cahan's "The Rise of David Levinsky," the immigrant experience is still a prominent theme among emerging American Jewish writers, to judge by the five finalists for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Two of the finalists - Sana Krasikov and Anya Ulinich - are immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose characters reflect that experience. In "The Septembers of Shiraz," Dalia Sofer, who was born in Iran, describes what happens to an Iranian-Jewish family after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. And although Anne Landsman's "The Rowing Lesson" doesn't focus on immigration, it is set in her native South Africa, where she says that as a Jew growing up in a small town, she felt she didn't quite belong among her Afrikaans classmates with blond hair and "shockingly blue eyes." Only one of the nominees, Elisa Albert, has written about an all-American Jewish girl, in "The Book of Dahlia" (though even Dahlia has an immigrant - an Israeli one - for a mother).

The multi-hued immigrant theme evinced in the finalists' fiction "shows the complexity of the Jewish experience," said Rohr Prize director Geri Gindea. She said the five-judge panel that selected the finalists did not set out looking for geographical diversity, or the youthful all-female roster it ended up with. (All but Landsman are in their 30s.)

"Each book was judged on its own merit," Gindea told Haaretz. "But like the Jewish experience in general, [Jewish literature] is made up of many different voices from different places and different times."

"There's a youth and a vitality that's here, that's combined with a looking back at where the different people came from, while searching for their own place in their current situation," she said.

The winner of the $100,000 prize will be announced in mid-March, with a second-place award of $25,000 going to the first runner-up. The prize, which is intended to honor and assist an "emerging writer" of Jewish literature, was established in 2007 by the family of New York businessman and philanthropist Sami Rohr, and alternates annually between fiction and non-fiction.

The prize is administered by the Jewish Book Council, the literary arm of the organized American Jewish community, which also administers the National Jewish Book Awards.This year's finalists:

  • Elisa Albert, for "The Book of Dahlia" (Free Press)"The Book of Dahlia" tells with dark humor the story of a single 29-year-old California Jewish girl's ruminations on her slacker lifestyle and the inoperable brain tumor that could bring it to an early close. The "hilarious, scathing and unexpectedly tender" novel, as Ellen Litman put it in a review in Haaretz Books, is structured around the chapters of a self-help guide that allows the irreverent, pot-smoking, depressive Dahlia Finger to reexamine her past. "And yet, the cancer fails to reform her," Litman wrote. "She remains her nihilistic, wisecracking self - an antihero of sorts - unwilling to fight for her life the way everyone expects her to."

    Albert, a founding editor of the edgy online Jewish culture magazine Jewcy and an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University, is also the author of "How This Night Is Different" (2006), a collection of short stories.

  • Sana Krasikov, for "One More Year" (Spiegel & Grau)Many of the characters in Sana Krasikov's debut collection of short stories are women who come from the former Soviet Union: those who live there, those who have left it and then returned, and those who, like Krasikov, have immigrated to the United States.

    "Krasikov's cast of exiles, refugees and repatriates are ... people moving in and out of love - or what passes for it," Gaiutra Bahadur wrote in a review of "One More Year" in The New York Times Book Review. "She has written a sensitive book about the economics of relationships: how they can become subtle transactions by people trying to pull off the trick of occupying more than one place and more than one time."

    Krasikov, a Ukrainian-born Jew who grew up in Georgia and the U.S., is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and a recipient of an O. Henry Award and a Fulbright Scholarship. She lives in New York City.

  • Anya Ulinich, for "Petropolis" (Viking Penguin)Like Sasha Goldberg, the chubby, half-black, half-Jewish teenage protagonist of Anya Ulinich's satirical debut novel, the author is a Russian emigre who studied art as a child and whose first destination in the U.S. was Arizona - though both Sasha and Ulinich end up in Brooklyn, where the author abandoned her longstanding fear of writing in her second language.

    It's refreshing, Andrea Thompson wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "to see something like a new American dream" appear in "Petropolis," in which the awkward outsider from the Siberian town of Asbestos 2 becomes a teenage mother, a mail-order bride and the pet Soviet Jew of Chicago millionaires. "Here, it's no longer a matter of material success, or even educational opportunities, but about finding a place for one's misfit heart," wrote Thompson. "Sasha is a lonely, pudgy girl - an ugly duckling born to a swan of a mother. This near-but-not-quite acquiescence to cliche runs throughout the book but, luckily, Ulinich has a wry sense of the absurd that usually turns the commonplace on its head."

  • Anne Landsman, for "The Rowing Lesson" (Soho Press)Anne Landsman's second novel, set in her native South Africa, "constitutes a master class in the examination of memory's richly layered textures," with the author's prose "distilled to a poetic essence," Angel Gurria-Quintana wrote in FT Magazine.

    "The Rowing Lesson" examines the past of the comatose Harold Klein - a Jewish doctor who, like Landsman's father, treated mostly Boer patients - through the memory and imagination of his pregnant daughter Betsy, who has immigrated to the United States but returns to sit with her father at his hospital bed.

    Landsman, wrote Michael Gorra in The Times Book Review, took a literary gamble - and won - by writing in what he calls "something like the second person." By taking that risk, Gorra wrote, "Landsman makes us see Harold Klein with a clarity she could not have achieved in a more conventional first- or third-person account."

  • Dalia Sofer, for "The Septembers of Shiraz" (Ecco)"In compelling and unadorned prose Dalia Sofer has written a powerful novel that examines the ordeal of a single family in Iran after the fall of the Shah and the injustices and cruelties that they must endure at the hand of the new regime," the judges for the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship, which honors talented fiction writers for their debut work, wrote in their citation awarding the 2008 fellowship to Sofer.

    Like Isaac Amin, a rare-gem dealer and the father in the family around which "The Septembers of Shiraz" revolves, Sofer's father was also jailed on charges of being a Zionist spy. Sofer and her family fled Iran when she was 10, and the novel, she has said, "is loosely based on my family's experiences."

    Writing in Haaretz Books, Ilene Prusher described "the experience of sudden powerlessness" in an upside-down world as an overarching theme, "deftly set by Sofer in the specifics of time and place that only someone with an intimate knowledge of Iran could produce."