The Jew Store, by Stella Suberman

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The Jew Store, by Stella Suberman

The Jew Store

by Stella Suberman
Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books
Dry goods store counter

Don't be put off by the title: 'Jew Store' was what small-town Southerners called the kind of low-priced dry goods shop that catered to farmers, factory workers, and African Americans back in the 1920s-1940s. In the days before Walmart, these shops run by immigrant Jews were welcome additions to a frequently struggling economy. And just as often, these shopkeepers and their families were the only Jews in town, which led to an interesting cross-cultural situation. This is a story about one of those families, and what they found in small-town Tennessee in the 1920s.

Don't be put off, either, because the book takes place in an exotic part of North America. Or in the Past, that boring unknown country before you came along to make life interesting. Or because you don't know Yiddish, or couldn't tell the difference between a Baptist and a Presbyterian. Don't be put off by your ignorance of Southern dialect, or your lack of interest in growing cotton or researching the history of shoe manufacturing in small towns. This book isn't a lecture on socioeconomics: it's a family memoir. The author will tell you everything you need to know.

Finally, don't be put off because there are no explosions in this book. There are no wars. They don't burn down Atlanta (or even a cross), although there's plenty of implied violence in the background. This account has plenty of excitement, and it's not manufactured, either: Ms Suberman's book proves that ordinary people are fascinating. You are guaranteed to fall in love with some of these folks – and get angry at others. And you'll be wiser at the end of the tale than you were going in. Trust me on this.

Oh, you want a plot summary? Okay. A couple with two young children arrives in Concordia, Tennessee, in a tarp-covered horsedrawn wagon, after a three-day trek from Nashville. They're exhausted, and a little scared. Oh, and it's 1920. Husband Aaron has convinced his reluctant wife Reba that they can make a go of opening a store in Concordia – where they know no one. They don't even know where to stay the night. Aaron is encouraging: trust his mazel, his luck, he says.

Then two barefoot kids drop out of a tree and ask, curiously, if they're the Jews they've heard were coming. They are. The boys introduce themselves: T. and Erv. T. was christened T.J. (this actually happens), but he's called T. for short. The newcomers probably need a place to stay, so they should go stay with T.J.'s 'cudden', Miss Brookie. Miss Brookie turns out to be a 58-year-old, college-educated woman who knows what the word 'kosher' means, even if her cook's fried chicken has been 'fixed' in lard. Oy vey, Reba's in shock. Aaron's delighted with his mazel. The kids take to it like ducks to water…and the narrator hasn't even been born yet.

The whole book's like that. Honestly. One delight after another, cultural comparisons, richly contextualised anecdotes, sharp insights on the nature of life, the universe, and everything, which includes quite a lot in this corner. And every bit of it comes from the collected memories of the participants in this saga: as the author has explained elsewhere, no library cards or internet files were employed in making this book. That's why it's a memoir. It's about memory, darn it. And it's beautiful.

Do these people all behave perfectly? No, sir and madam, they do not. That's why the author has changed the names to protect the privacy of everyone. (And then the Nashville Tennessean went and outted the town in their review. Typical of the Tennessean, if you ask me.)

Is this story real? Oh, yes, it is real. Does it represent both sides fairly? As well as I know both groups – and I'm from Tennessee, and speak both the local dialect and Yiddish – I found every page to ring true.

Is there something in this book for you? Well, let's see. Do you want to see past the 'sweep of history' approach to the bygone days, and find out what it was like to live in them? Check. Are you interested in gender, race, ethnic, social, and/or other forms of human relations? Check. Do you like a good yarn? Do you enjoy funny stories? Do you desire to expand your knowledge of human experience? I think Ms Suberman's got you covered.

Here is what I learned from this book:

  • Each human experiences life in a unique way.
  • Often, life-changing decisions are based on past experiences and the desires they generate.
  • These decisions can have far-reaching consequences.
  • Memory is a powerful thing.

If you read the book and then want to see what the author is like, there's a talk and Q-and-A on C-SPAN. Ms Suberman's an engaging speaker, and she'll answer a lot of the questions you have after reading the book.

Have a new favourite book? Write us a review for the h2g2 Post. We'll be grateful. (Promise.)

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