Mention the word "shtetl" and American Jews will feel a twinge of nostalgia, although most of them are two or more generations removed from these East European Jewish villages. Contemporary images of the shtetl tend toward an uncertain mixture of Chagall's colorful flying rabbis and sad-eyed goats, the shul (synagogue), cheder (school) and shabbes tisch(Sabbath table) of legends and literature, and every aspect of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." In this shtetl of second-hand memories, the heavy/sweetish smells of foods like cholent, tsimmes, gribenes, and schmaltz-herring waft through the narrow streets; in the open air market, voices argue, curse, and kvetch in the guttural rasp of Yiddish. And over the entire ordinary, close-knit community hovers the unthinkable, the molokh ha-maves (Angel of Death) who with one stroke will sweep the shtetls into rail cars, crematoria, and mass graves.
By the 1960's, during which most of Robert Rand's novel, "My Suburban Shtetl" takes place ,the European shtetls were twenty years gone, but the American Jewish community was thriving, moving to suburbs, and like other ethnic groups before and after, struggling to balance assimilation into the American mainstream with the their religious and cultural identity.
Stricken by the devastation of European Jewry, American Jews pondered the security of their own situation, and resolved to make sure that history did not repeat itself.
Skokie, Illinois, Rand's home town and the novel's setting, was considered a "Jewish suburb", what with its numerous synagogues, delis, kosher shops. The Jewish population of Skokie never exceeded 40%, but it was a visible, outspoken group with a large concentration of Holocaust survivors. A Skokie native, Rand uses the 1977-78 controversy of a proposed American Nazi march through the village as a frame to explore issues of intolerance and compassion, perceived danger and safe-ness.
It's a quick read, told with humor. The narrator, Bobby Bakalchuk, recounts incidents from his childhood featuring a variety of characters that mirror various Jewish responses to the Holocaust, to prejudice, to Black-Jewish relations, to Christian-Jewish relations, to identity and assimilation, and to their American citizenship. If the characters seem somewhat familiar, it's probably because we've met types like these in Woody Allen movies and Philip Roth's early stories. There's old Abe Yellin, Bobby's wise and sensitive grandfather, always ready with a quote from the Talmud in Hebrew or English. When Frank Collin and his small band of Nazis first try to enter Skokie, Grandpa is in the angry crowd waiting to stop them-and he does, by hitting Collin in the face with a salami.
Bobby's love interest, even at age 10, is, in the tradition of Jewish men in literature, the shiksa down the block. Her exotic charms include "Ã¢ÂÂ¦the first blue eyes I'd known. And blonde hair, curly blonde hair that meandered and flowed like a river in paradise down to the backs of her knees."(p.92) In keeping with other gentiles of literature, her family "Ã¢ÂÂ¦buttered their bologna sandwiches." (p.93) An old Orthodox rabbi,without a congregation, apparently, adds some Old World color to the stories, finishing each sentence with "Tui, tui, tui," (an approximation of spitting to ward away the "Evil Eye." He spend his days walking through Skokie "knocking on Jewish doors for this or that cause," (p.31) a habit which conveniently places him, usually confused, in every event of the book. Then there's the fat schlumpy kid with the thick glasses and the huge intellect, Norman-Meyer Ashkenaz. To preserve his own place in elementary school society, Bobby joins the other kids in tormenting Norman-Meyer and calling him a "cootie," but at home they are the best of friends, involved in one Jewish "Leave it to Beaver" like escapade after another.
The novel's episodic structure often gives the impression of a well-written television series, finding humor in the midst of serious issues and using amusing situations to shed light on human nature. In one incident, one Manny Goodstein, owner of the Oakton Street Bakery "whose ovens produced the bagels and challah and rye bread and wedding cakes that fueled Jewish life in our village"(p.81)convinces the Oakton Street Merchants Association to sponsor a flamboyant stunt in order to increase customer traffic in Skokie's shopping district (several years before Old Orchard Shopping Center was built.) The promotion involved hiring helicopters and dropping ten thousand ping-pong balls filled with coupons and cash "like manna from heaven all over town. And the people will chase those things like horny old rabbis let loose in the ladies' side of a Russian steam bath."(p.83) Naturally, the promotion takes place at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, to predictable results. "Reb RappaportÃ¢ÂÂ¦froze: a bearded, black-garbed Orthodox mannequin, legs all noodle-like, arms stretched skyward, Ping-Pong balls bouncing bop-bip-bop off the brim of his streyml, or Orthodox cap. "Roosh-ee-ahns!" he screamed Ã¢ÂÂ¦ "Oy, oy, oy!" (87-88) And a few blocks away "[c]lusters of frazzled ladies-Cohens and Zimmers and Lichtensteins, Schwabs and Levys and Milsteins-ran around their yards and each other in various states of undress and bewildermentÃ¢ÂÂ¦" Of course, all is sorted out by the end of the chapter. Other episodes focus on racial prejudice (Bobby, and Skokie, meet their first Black man,) Jewish-Christian relations (Bobby has a childhood romance with the blonde, blue-eyed shiksa form down the street,) neighborhood integration (a Black family moves to Skokie,) and conflicts of cultural identity ( a Jewish lawyer, championing the First Amendment, defends the Nazis' right to march in Skokie.) A now grown-up Bobby Bakalchuk connects these stories with politics and history, providing detailed accounts of the death of mobster Baby Face Nelson, the Cold War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots in Chicago, the German media's fascination with the planned Nazi march in Skokie, and Skokie's connection with the early days of motions pictures, among other nuggets.