From the opening of Anita Diamant’s heartwarming novel, The Boston Girl, (Scribner), when Addie Bauman, an 85-year-old grandmother recounts her life story to her granddaughter, I was struck by the similarities between the Jewish cultural beliefs and mores in Boston in 1915, when Addie’s story starts, and in Iran, where I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s.
Mameh, Addie’s mother, complains that Addie is “ruining her eyes from reading. No one wants to marry a girl with a squint.” During my teens, I walked around with a perpetual squint because, Who would want to marry a girl who wears glasses? And don’t even start me on the tsoris bombarded on my head for being an avid reader. When Addie’s older sister, Betty, attempts to carve an independent life for herself, Mameh stops mentioning Betty’s name in public. She calls Betty, “A real American … making it sound like a curse.” After we moved to America, my own father, alav ha-shalom, when faced with an opinion from his children and grandchildren that differed from his own, would shake his head in resignation and sigh, “This is America, after all,” as if that was enough to explain his family’s transgressions. When Addie asks her parents if her sister is in love with the man she is about to marry, the answer is, “Not yet … You learn to love someone when you make a life together.” That’s what I was told, when my parents chose my husband.
The story of Addie is the story of every immigrant and the difficulties of adapting to and accepting an unfamiliar culture. Despite being in my twenties when I arrived in this country, I, too, had a hard time conforming as fast as my children expected me to. I had imported my antiquated beliefs and continued to cling to them, as if embracing the new way might break the last remnants of my frayed relationship with the country I once called home. So much so, it broke my heart when my daughter moved out of the house before she was married. I understand Mameh’s anger at Bettie’s unconventional decision to move out of the house. It does not matter that four of them live in one room. “Girls were supposed to live with their families until they got married and the only kind of woman who went on her own was a ‘kurveh’. That’s ‘whore’ in Yiddish.”
In an intimate and calm voice that contradicts the setting we enter, Addie invites us to eavesdrop on her heart-to-heart with her granddaughter, leading us through significant historical events–the Depression, First and Second World Wars, the flu epidemic, Prohibition, and the burgeoning feminist movement. She also talks about her life growing up in Boston in a one-room tenement apartment with a father, who found refuge in the neighborhood shul, “where no one yelled at him,” and a rigid mother, whose loss taints her every breath, making it impossible for her to accept anything new. We learn that Addie’s mother was pregnant when she was forced to immigrate to America. “Someone accused my father of stealing a silver cup from the church. In those days, that was the same as a death sentence for a Jew, so he came to America….” The memory of arriving by ship is one of the most moving in the story.
This is a time of sweatshops and child laborers, a time when most colleges do not accept Jews. A time when it is not common for women to wear pants, revealing a bare shoulder is considered racy, and no one would think of hiring lady lawyers. Despite all the obstacles and restrictions, Addie, an early feminist, goes to work in a shirt factory and then in a local newspaper, where she eventually writes her own column, not an easy feat. Love, like everything else in life, does not come easy to Addie, but the ups and downs of that journey, too, are what makes Addie Baum the Boston Girl she becomes.
In The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant, the bestselling author of The Red Tent, demonstrates the ease with which she is able to navigate her way from biblical times to the early twentieth century, each historical, familial and cultural detail rendered with attention to detail and authentic accuracy.
Dora Levy Mossanen is a frequent reviewer for the Jewish Journal. Her latest novel is “Scent of Butterflies,” www.doralevymossanen.com.