I loved this book, but I think you might have had to be there, you might have had to be Jewish, you might have had to be born in that era, and you probably should know something about Brooklyn, its two family houses and the Jewish ghetto and culture to really appreciate this book and identify with its characters and their way of life. If you were part of that era and that background, you can’t help but really enjoy the book’s walk down memory lane, apart and aside from the story itself.
The narrator may have overdone the Jewish inflection at times, but, otherwise, I think that she did a marvelous job of interpreting the attitudes and personalities of each of the characters, male and female, giving each an authentic voice, complete with the appropriate accent for each one, subtly showing that as they became upwardly mobile and successful, their Jewish intonation lessened, they moved out of Brooklyn into Long Island where the WASPS lived and their Barbra Streisand sound-alike accents diminished. Jews wanted to fit in, and they wanted to succeed. They wanted to achieve the American dream in spite of the ever present anti-Semitism.
I grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. I walked to the corner candy store to get a newspaper, to the local green grocer and vegetable store, the shoemaker, the pharmacy where the “druggist” subbed for the doctor in those days. I had relatives who lived so close by that my aunts and uncles were interchangeable with my own parents. My aunts shared a two family house around the corner from mine. There was always a safe space to go to if I found no one home. No door was ever locked. We had so many aunts and uncles and we often laughed at some while we praised others. Some were always baking but were so frugal they could serve 100 guests from a cake meant for 12 ( a bit of an exaggeration, lol). Some seemed cold and mean or teased us. Some brought us bubble gum every week with the groceries they delivered to us from their dairy store, and we loved them best. Some cheated each other, some were jealous of the success of others, some borrowed and didn’t return, but by and large, we were all one big, happy family. It was a far simpler life than today’s scene. Ethics and morality and rules were more clearly defined. There was a clear line between right and wrong, good and bad, that we were taught not to cross, while at the same time we might turn a blind eye and accept the wrongdoing of more successful relatives. Success was important, not so much how it was achieved. It was the culture. It was survival. The author caught its essence and put it on the page.
This story is basically about two brothers with entirely different personalities who work together in a family cardboard box business started by their father. It is about their wives who also have distinctly different personalities and it is about their children. It is about the house they all lived in and the way in which their relationships changed over the years because of certain choices, secrets and events. I totally recognized the sister-in-law’s and brother’s behavior, their customs, admonitions and expectations that were different for boys and girls. Girls got married, boys got jobs. Males were more desirable because they carried the family name into the future, females did not. Most mothers acquiesced to all of their husband’s demands. Fathers made all of the decisions and rules. Mothers didn’t defy them even if they didn’t agree with them. Jewish guilt was then, and is today, alive and well. It was the way of life for Jewish families in those days. They were also on the move; they were aspiring to higher heights and were upwardly mobile. When they became more successful they actually did move to Long Island just like the Bermans. Often those moves disrupted families and petty jealousies rose up. Those who now had air conditioning wouldn’t meet in the homes of those who didn’t.
I loved the story for its nostalgia and the memories it evoked in me, even more than for its content, but I enjoyed that part too. I knew the streets and the neighborhoods. I loved the way the family interacted and the way the division of power was exposed. It accurately highlighted Jewish life in those days, expressing the devotion and loyalty of family members toward each other, showing their willingness to sacrifice their own needs in order to help someone in the family that was needier, in any way, while it also showed how grievances sometimes separated them.
Today, that lifestyle is essentially over. Families have dispersed far and wide and are not as close, in most cases, although those in family businesses do manage to sometimes stay in closer contact, but often with far more conflict. It was, in retrospect, a wonderful way of life, but if you didn’t live it, the book might not have the same magical impact for you! For me, watching the family deal with what life threw at them was at the heart of the story and the heart of my memories.