The passionate accounting of an immigrant's pain


August 28, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"How I Found America," collected stories by Anzia Yezierska, 312 pages, Persea Books, New York, N.Y., $24.95.

"Red Ribbon on a White Horse," a memoir by Anzia Yezierska, 228 Pages, Persea Books, New York, N.Y., $9.95. ANNA YEZIERSKA'S voice rises out of the old immigrant ghetto of Lower East Side New York like a flame bursting from a smoldering fire. Her stories collected in "How I Found America" are one long, fierce, cry from the heart.

The stories parallel her life. They begin with a young immigrant woman newly arrived from Russia in the early 1900s. She's choking in the poverty of the ghetto. She's stifled by the airless basement rooms, the sweatshops, the smell of garlic and herring, the poverty of Hester Street in lower Manhattan.

Poverty is the thread that binds these stories, the ornament, as the ancient proverb says, that adorns the Jewish woman, the learned Jew, "like a red ribbon on a white horse."

"My heart chokes in me like in a prison," wails Shenah Pessah, in the first words of the story "Wings."

Shenah Pessah is virtually a slave to her uncle, who has paid the $50 for her ticket to America. An American sociologist named John Barnes appears almost magically on her doorstep. He's studying "The Educational Problems of the Russian Jews."

They have a brief brush with love. He withdraws; she is inspired to be worthy of him.

"Show him what's in you," Shenah resolves. "If it takes a year, or a million years, you got to show him you're a person. From now on you got why to live."

John Barnes is, of course, a cool, clean, somewhat tweedy symbol of America. He is the sympathetic, but unattainable ideal. America receives its immigrants, but they have to earn acceptance as Americans.

"In America a person can't live on hopes of the next world," says Shenah's uncle. "In America everybody got to look out for himself."

A shimmering golden America rings and reverberates through these stories in a way that is perhaps lost and unheard in the third and fourth generations after the great immigration of the turn of the century. That promise may still echo for Vietnamese boat people, Korean grocers, Mexican farm workers and even for the second great immigration of Russian Jews.

In the story "Soap and Water" the immigrant woman who has worked her way through college washing other people's dirty laundry cries out:

"My body was worn to the bone from overwork, my footsteps dragged with exhaustion, but my eyes still sought the sky, praying ceaselessly praying, the dumb inarticulate prayer of the lost immigrant: 'America! Ach. America! Where is America!'"

America often fails its immigrants in Yezierska's stories.

In "The Lost 'Beautifulness' ", a mother pinches to have a white-painted kitchen for her son who is returning from France where he has served with the U.S. Army in World War I.

The landlord raises her rent because he can now get more money for the apartment. Private Abraham Safransky comes home to Delancey Street to find the family evicted and their household goods piled on the sidewalk in the rain.

In "Soap and Water," a woman who has worked three hours in a laundry before school and five at night after school faces a college dean named "Miss Whiteside." The dean threatens to withhold the woman's diploma because of her disheveled "personal appearance."

"I felt the suppressed wrath of the unwashed everywhere," the woman says. "I didn't care for myself, nor the dean, nor the whole laundered world. I had suffered the cruelty of their cleanliness and the tyranny of their culture to the breaking point . . . ."

Yet, Yezierska writes, "in the roots and saps of my soul, burned the deathless faith that America is, must be, somehow, somewhere. . . ."

In her old age, Yezierska knew her stories were called "period pieces." Maybe. But they're full to bursting with a passion rare in these days of writing learned in graduate school seminars -- the passion of a heart laid bare.

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