MODERN GIRLS and the Family Expectation to Keep Culture Alive

MODERN GIRLS by Jennifer S. BrownI devoured MODERN GIRLS. From the moment that I met the mother/daughter co-narrators, Rose and Dottie Krasinsky, I was sucked into their world and caught up in their lives. One of the most compelling aspects of the story is the not just the flashback to 1935, but the richly drawn glimpse into a Jewish immigrant enclave.

One of the central tensions of the book is the classic immigrant family pull between the Old World and the New. Yet Jennifer’s very decision to write this book is in and of itself an honoring of the ancestors. The lovely inclusion of so much Yiddish, the description of traditional Ashkenazi cuisine, and above all the loving descriptions of these two poor/working class heroines is a profound decision to reclaim culture in an era in which Jews, as a group, have largely assimilated in the US, and are associated with the middle and upper classes.

In that era before WWII, the Lower East Side is so completely the province of immigrant Jews from Europe, that it seems to be totally theirs. And yet, my own novel is set on the Lower East Side in present day, and my protagonist laments how it her Puerto Rican community has been pushed out through gentrification. My own mother is the daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant, and I feel that tension between assimilation and cultural retention. My mother’s father was not Latino, so she shed his name and took her mother’s Spanish surname. I did the same. My daughter has our last name–de Leon–hyphenated with her father’s Scottish Jamaican name (a mouthful!) and I’m sending her to Spanish immersion school. She is nearly fluent. My grandmother refused to teach my mother Spanish in the 40s and 50s (so she could be American). As a result, my mother couldn’t teach me. I picked it up in school and then pursued it as an adult. I am semi-fluent and struggle mightily in fast-paced adult conversation. But the I haven’t given up the battle for my own ability to speak my ancestral language, even as I assure my daughter’s ability to speak it fluently. This is the battle that Jennifer illuminates in the book: the desire of mothers for their daughters to have a better life than they have, while still fighting for what they want for themselves.

A central question in MODERN GIRLS is whether or not it is possible to be modern without assimilating to American values. Throughout the book, we see both Dottie and Rose making choices that are Old School and New. We also see ways in which the Old School wisdom helps them triumph, and the New World holds false promises. One of my favorite scenes brings the Krasinsky family into the context of a more assimilated Jewish environment, and–without any spoilers–I think I can say that team Old School holds their own. Part of this is because Rose is a labor activist, carrying the powerful Jewish tradition of fighting for social justice, a deeply held element in Jewish tradition. I love this drawing of Rose as a political thinker, in addition to her never-ending domestic role as wife and mother. In this way, we see her struggling with the same thing that so many women struggle with, even today: how to raise a family and still be connected to the larger world.

I think it was brilliant to set the book in 1935. The challenges of unplanned pregnancies bring up issues of sexuality, sexism, reproductive justice–recent attacks on reproductive rights show that lack of access to reproductive options isn’t simply a thing of the past. However, 1935 is also a profound time in Jewish history to set a book. The US population of Jews was familiar with the progroms and violent tradition of European anti-Semitism, but could not yet imagine the horrors of the Holocaust. The pressure of reproduction hadn’t yet crashed down upon a community that had lost two-thirds of its population to genocide. As Jewish feminist scholar Diane Balser explains, the weight of such decimation meant that post-Holocaust generations of Jewish women would feel even greater pressure to have children in a culture that already stressed procreation.

But while the looming Holocaust is certainly ominous within the novel, the vibrancy of the community reflects the ongoing reality: that WWII genocide was devastating, but ultimately failed–the Jewish community lives on and its vibrancy continues. Another lovely element of the book is the celebration of sexuality from Jewish tradition that reveals itself in such strong contrast to many Christian traditions. The lack of shame about pleasure and sexual connection is a welcome departure from depictions of young women’s sexuality as always a problem.

To be sure, the levels of sexual violence that so many young women experience across cultures are by no means our fault, and should also be explored in literature. But I really appreciated Jennifer’s deft thematic separation between joy in sexuality and sexual consequences via unplanned pregnancy. The book emerges in no way as a cautionary tale, rather as a celebration of Jewish history, a celebration mothers and daughters, a celebration of immigrant culture, and a celebration of women’s lives.

 

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

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  1. Such a rich take on MODERN GIRLS as we see that same Lower East Side during different eras and the same struggle of mothers trying to give their daughters (and sons) better lives. I finally have my own copy of MODERN GIRLS. Looking forward to reading it after I finish A Little Life.

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