Coming to America: The Immigrant Experience Through the Lens of Literature

Wendy Westgate, Librarian, Exploration & Creativity Department,
A stack of books related to the immigrant experience

In the spring of 2020, Los Angeles Public Library will host a series of five book discussion programs focusing on the immigrant experience. The Yiddish Book Center’s “Coming to America” Reading Groups for Public Libraries is a program in which librarians arrange reading groups to discuss three books of Yiddish literature in translation, and one book related to an immigrant community served by their library. The local Armenian immigrant community was the group selected as the non-Yiddish component to the program series.

The “Coming to America” reading and discussion program aims to engage teens and adults in thinking about immigrants’ experiences when encountering America: In what ways do immigrants change America, and in what ways does America change immigrants?

Programming will take place between February 29 and May 27, 2020, with three Yiddish titles in translation and one English-language title representing the Armenian immigrant experience. The first three book discussions will be facilitated by Miri Koral, Founding Director of the local California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language and a native speaker of Yiddish.

Five branches will participate, offering the following book discussions:

  • Studio CityEnemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, February 29, 2020 at 3:30 p.m.
  • WestwoodA Jewish Refugee in New York by Kadya Molodvosky, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at 5 p.m.
  • FairfaxMotl the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem, March 17, 2020 at 4 p.m.
  • Sunland-TujungaThe Hundred-Year Walk by Dawn Anahid MacKeen, Saturday, April 25, 2020 at 2 p.m.
  • Palms RanchoA Jewish Refugee in New York by Kadya Molodvosky, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 at 5 p.m.

Copies of each title can be borrowed from the branch hosting the book discussion or checked out from the library as holdings allow. The book discussions will be facilitated by local scholars and librarians. Downloadable discussion guides and reading resources will also be provided. You can download them here as well:

Enemies, a Love Story - Study Guide
A Jewish Refugee in New York - Study Guide
Motl the Cantor’s Son - Study Guide

Primarily using Yiddish literature as a portal, the program will feature three Yiddish titles in translation that explore questions of identity, assimilation, language, and generational change, along with one book related to the local Armenian immigrant community.

Book cover for Enemies, a Love Story
Enemies, a Love Story
Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Isaac Bashevis Singer is a genius at understanding the human psyche in all its convoluted yet ultimately forgivable machinations. His story about a Holocaust survivor and his three women in post-War New York City is utterly unique and gripping. 

Book cover for A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg's Journal
A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg's Journal
Molodowsky, Kadia

Originally published in serial format in the Yiddish newspaper, this novel tells the story of the fictional Rivke Zilberg, a 20-year-old Jew who arrives in New York shortly after the Nazi invasion of her native Poland. As Rivke struggles to learn a new language and cope with a different way of life in the United States, we learn about the challenges and opportunities faced by those attempting to find a new life as a Jewish immigrant in the United States.

Molodovsky was herself a pre-war immigrant in New York City from Poland, and although it was said of her poetry that “she writes like a man”—once considered the greatest compliment, as given by a man, of course—her main concern was always the plight of women. This engaging novel makes you root for the young heroine in her struggles to make it in the big city as her family is being murdered in Europe.

Book cover for Tevye the Dairyman: And Motl the Cantor's Son
Tevye the Dairyman: And Motl the Cantor's Son
Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem’s character, Motl Peysi, much less known to the American public than his beloved Tevye, is as much of a wisecracking and charming rascal as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Along with Tevye, Motl is one of the most celebrated characters in all of Jewish fiction, and this novel provides great insight into the struggles and hopes of Jewish immigrants to America in the early 20th century.

To read about Motl’s adventures on the journey from his Russian shtetl to New York is to get both the perspective of a precocious young boy and the revered author’s take on the turn-of-the-century New York Jewish scene. It’s poignantly humorous, an oxymoron that is Sholem Aleichem’s signature style. The novel was also adapted as a play that was performed here in L.A. in the 1950s by the world’s one-and-only L.A. Yiddish Children’s Theater.

Book cover for The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey
The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey
MacKeen, Dawn Anahid

In The Hundred-Year Walk, an epic and inspiring tale of one man's courage in the face of genocide, his granddaughter, award-winning journalist Dawn Ahahid MacKeen, tells his story based on his long-lost journals. Growing up, her mother recounted how her grandfather Stepan miraculously escaped from the Turks during the Armenian genocide of 1915, when more than one million Armenians were killed. Attempting to fill in the picture of Stepan's life—and the lost home her family fled—Dawn travels alone to Turkey and Syria, retracing her grandfather’s steps using his journals as a guide. Part reportage, part memoir, the story alternates between Stepan's tale of resilience and Dawn's remarkable journey, giving us a rare firsthand account of the twentieth century's first genocide. The Hundred-Year Walk was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2017.