Click and type in a question or comment
ONE DAY NEAR the end of her life, Lara Berk asked her daughter, Juliene, "Why don't you write my story? It's very interesting."
"I can't write your story, Mama," her daughter replied. "Only you can." The result of this exchange was a handwritten sixty-seven page manuscript the older woman gave her daughter two weeks later. Juliene Berk took her mother's memoir and surrounded it with a reconstruction of the events they described to create CALL HER BLESSED.
The mother's writing is spare, blunt, matter-of-fact; the peculiarities of her spelling and punctuation provide a visual analogue of her accented English. The daughter's narrative is fluidly readable, essentially re-creating her mother's life as a historical novel -- but one carefully grounded in reality.
Lara Moskovitz and the young man she would marry, Bercu Bercovici, were born in Iasi, Romania in the last decades of the 19th century, into poverty and hunger of more than one kind.
Impossible for Jews to survive in Romania, Lara's family moves to the New World. Because of an earlier emigrant from Iasi whose letters home become part of the local folklore, they choose to settle in Florida.
Lara's jaw drops open the day she sees black people for the first time, a whole railway car full of them. ("I never even knew such people are in existence!") Later, an account she hears of a public hanging literally sickens her with its brutality. It's an experiece she will remember years later when she reads of Leo Frank's lynching in Georgia.
Her marriage endures for over fifty years. The children come, and with them, at last, the joy of her life. She has seven in seventeen years, one more beautiful than the next. A studio photograph displays the first five in Victorian stepladder style, youngest to tallest, all in spotless white.
Lara and Bercu, her husband, move into a modest bungalow. The family increases and its fortunes rise, until one day Lara is able to design the house of her dreams -- the peak moment of her life, outside of the births of her children.
"You get what you Build. That's my life." are Lara's words ending the book. Hers was a life spent meeting exhausting demands with honor. The account chronicling it, without being slick, feels much shorter than its 450-odd pages. The author is a natural, and why she had to self-publish this book is beyond me.
JONATHAN KAUNITZ, Santa Monica, California:
Most stories involving American Jews involve some aspect of the Holocaust, whether it is escape from Hitler’s Germany, the recounting of its horrors, or of post-war angst and guilt. Few books address pre-World War II Jewish life, and even fewer the life of Romanian Jews in early 20th century Florida. Juliene Berk’s new book, Call Her Blessed, chronicles the life of Romanian Jewish immigrants. Centering on the author’s mother Lara, and based on her diary written in what must be heavily accented English, the book develops into a gripping saga of life in the South in the early 20th century. Beginning in Iasi, Romania, the author gradually and painstakingly develops the story which centers around the author’s mother, whose courage, beauty, grace, strength, stamina, wisdom, patience, and big heart makes me wonder how so much goodness could be found in one person. Through this portrait, Ms. Berk provides a backdrop of the urbanizing South which is surprising in its seeming ethnic tolerance and progressive outlook. Woven into the tale are two world wars, both of which directly affected the family, the deadly 1918 flu epidemic, the tragic lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, and the deadly, barbaric pogrom in Kishinev. Embellished with photographs and extrapolations based on the recollections of relatives and friends, Ms. Berk spins a compelling tale of cultural assimilation, idiosyncrasies, hardship, and success. Her family, despite numerous business successes and failures, and personal triumphs and tragedies, perseveres, multiplies, and prospers. CALL HER BLESSED is in essence a paean to Lara, whose love for her family and her family’s love for her suffuses the book with a warm glow. For anyone who shares my Jewish Romanian background, this book is an absolute must. For those curious about lesser-known aspects of the early 20th century south, or for those interested in pre-World War II southern Jewish life, or about Jewish immigrant culture, it is highly recommended.
ON GLIMPSES OF SOUTHERN JEWISH ROOTS:
American Jewish Historical Association:
"...a delightful collection of vignettes...
"... collection of short stories about real people
and events involving Jews who arrived in the South 100 years ago. Also included in the book is 'Yankel In
Amerikeh,' a group of vignettes told in the voice of one of the immigrants speaking his new language in a distinctive way..."
"...collection of 22 charming stories..."
Las Vegas Israelite:
"... true stories about how it was in America when Eastern European Jews were fleeing pogroms and poverty. Hardships are combined with humor as the extended Bercovici-Berkovitz-Berk family adapted to their new country. ...Yankel in Amerikeh comments on what he sees, thinks and feels much in the manner of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye except that now it is Yankel who is facing a curious, sometimes dangerous and always perplexing New World..."
The Reporter, The Jewish Federation of Broome County
Binghampton, NY :
"... The adjectives that came to mind while reading these works were pleasant and charming... Berk's loving descriptions makes it easy to see that she truly cares about these people, and readers may find themselves feeling the same. And then there's Yankel, the funny elder who has almost disappeared from the American scene. I found his monologues on life amusing... If you laugh or groan with pleasure, you'll find yourself liking Yankel."