And now for another look at old New York, this time those parts inhabited by Jews.
Unterzakhn by Leela Corman.
“Unterzakhn” is Yiddish for “underthings”, which seems to refer both to our main characters, on the bottom end of the social ladder, tied together with views of laundry lines drying underthings between chapters. This story takes follows two girls growing up in the tenements of New York, from 1909 to 1923. Fanya and Esther are six when we meet them, according to the back cover. Fanya is sent to find Bronia, the Lady-Doctor, because Mrs. Gold is bleeding out in the street. Unfortunately, Bronia is too late, and she refuses to tell Fanya just what has happened, despite her persistent questions. However, Bronia comes back to their mother to ask for permission to teach the girls to read. Permission is granted only for Fanya, as the mother doesn’t really think learning necessary for girls, and wants help still with their little sister Feigl. Even so, Esther finds herself drawn to the nearby burlesque and whorehouse. She’s interested in the dancing, and starts learning despite teasing from some of the other dancing about her Jewish looks. As the girls grow older, Fanya starts helping Bronia more with her work of helping women with childbirth, while also providing illegal abortions (mostly early on, via herbal teas) and family planning training, just as controversial. In this world where death in childbirth is frequent and those who survive end up with more children than they can feed, Bronia’s advocacy for total celibacy seems reasonable. (Although I wondered why Bronia didn’t seem to have any remedies for postpartum hemorrhage, as my own midwives remedies included ones that seemed time-tested as well as modern.) Meanwhile, Esther starts working on both sides of the House. After their father dies, a flashback shows us his journey to America from Russia, forced out by a regime willing to kill any Jews who won’t leave on their own. After his death, Fanya and Esther’s lives diverge further, as Esther gains fame and wealthy patrons, while Fanya’s work starts gaining her enemies. Spoiler alert – by the end of the book, only one member of the original family of five is still alive.
This is a much darker view of life in New York City than we see in Gone to Amerikay. There’s a lot of blood and unglamorous nudity, though not as much actual sex shown as one might expect for a book starring a prostitute. In spite of this, Corman’s characters are so full of life and joy, her strong black-and-white drawings so vibrant, that the book comes across as a celebration of the strong people of the tenements, determined to live their life to the fullest, no matter how shoddy the hand they are dealt. This is one that fans of grittier historical fiction with strong women will enjoy.