The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

This is a book about Jewish immigrants and ice cream. In other words, it is a perfect book for me. I obviously love Jewish history, and my husband and I love ice cream so much that we had an ice cream sundae bar at our wedding*. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street didn’t disappoint. I found myself trying to read the book slowly in order to make it last longer, as it was so good – not unlike taking dainty licks to make the ice cream cone last longer. Gilman is wonderful storyteller, and her main character, Lillian, is an engaging and spirited narrator.

Transient

 

The Ice Cream Queen alternates between Lillian’s present-day life, as she navigates a pending scandal as the head of her enormous ice cream company, and flashbacks that tell the story of her rise to fame and fortune. Gilman keeps readers in suspense by waiting until close to the end of the novel to reveal the scandal. Lillian Dunkle was born Malka Bialystoker, and her earliest memories are of how she and her family were able to escape their Russian shtetl and get on a ship to America. Lillian remembers the disillusionment and disappointment her family experienced on arrival to the Lower East Side, which was a poverty-stricken, disease-addled mess. Furthermore, not only were the challenges of learning an entirely new way of life too much for some, but many were just schmucks to begin with.** After Lillian’s father disappears, she muses: “Every month posters in Yiddish, Italian, and English papered the neighborhood with names and short descriptions of all the men who had deserted the families or gone missing: lost. Seeking. Last seen. It was epidemic. In all those ridiculous fairy tales about immigrant life, poor-but-happy families pull together to launch a rag business – that turns into a tailor’s shop – that turns into Ralph Lauren. Please…I have no use for that sort of nonsense. On the Lower East Side, families shattered like glass bottles. Men up and left all the time.”

But Lillian does have a rags-to-riches story. On a fateful afternoon, Lillian is hit by an ice cream cart. With her father gone and her mother in a sanitarium, Lillian is taken in by the guilt-ridden ice cream man and his large Italian family, the Dinello’s. Lillian watches and helps as the Dinello’s family business grows from a few horse-drawn carts to a storefront ice cream parlor. Gillman provides a good amount of ice cream science, which I particularly enjoyed. In the horse-drawn cart days, the Dinello’s would prepare their Italian ice mixture in the kitchen by using rock salt and a crank. Having a permanent ice cream parlor meant that the Dinello’s could get a continuous-batch freezer: “In the decade before my family and I arrived in America, a man named Burr Walker, oddly enough – Burr, darlings, could you make this up? – invented a ‘circulating brine freezer.’ Instead of employing ice and rock salt, this curious contraption froze ingredients inside a cylinder encased in brine, cooled with an ammonia compressor…you could pour the ingredients in the top, start the motor, and have it all come out as ice cream at the bottom…”

Lillian and some of the Dinello boys, like many on the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s, find their way to some “community organizing” – that is, socialist/Communist types of meetings. But Lillian, her no-nonsense streak strong from the beginning, admits: “What little I knew about Communism I did not care for at all…and the idea that the Dinellos could build their little ice cream factory into a great success only to have it taken over by ‘the proletariat’? This was repellant to me. I dreamed of being rich myself one day…Certainly nobody I knew had immigrated here to share. Nobody I knew was hoping to hand over the fruits of their labors to every goddamn nudnik in the tenement. Besides, Communism had been invented by Russians. Those drunken, murderous Russians who had beaten my grandfather to death in his own kitchen.”

The one good thing to come of the meetings, though, is that Lillian is introduced to her future husband, a man named Bert who looks like Errol Flynn, though he’s not quite as sharp is Lillian. Her growing relationship with Bert, who is Jewish, highlights how Lillian is never completely accepted by the Dinello children, who can’t quite stop seeing her as an "amazza Christo." Eventually, she is left out of an important family business decision. This leaves her livid and determined to get revenge, somehow. And she does. She and her new husband, Bert, start “Dunkle’s Ice Cream” and have a stroke of luck when they apparently ‘discover’ how to make soft-serve ice cream. As is known from the beginning of the book, Dunkle’s becomes so big that Lillian is known as the “Ice Cream Queen of America,” with a Sunday Morning “Sundae Fun-house” TV show. Gillman seems to have had fun imagining the sorts of promotions that an ice cream company could do over the years: partnering with polio vaccinations so that every child who had a shot got a free cone, creating special flavors for WWII (“armistachio”), and capitalizing on her Yiddish-Italian background to be the “ultimate” caring, pushy mother in her commercials: “ Soon, ‘So sue me: I worry’ became a hugely popular catchphrase. Customers, they gleefully parroted it in our stores, mimicking my accent….I pinched their cheeks. I told them to ‘eat a little. Have a little something for the mouth.’ ”  

I enjoyed the way Gillman’s characters and plotlines loosely mimicked and recalled actual history. Lillian’s rivalry with the Dinello’s made me think of the tense relationship between the old Jewish and Italian gangs of New York (thinking of Meyer Lansky). The popularity of Lillian’s ‘homey’ commercials made me wonder if Gillman didn’t have the old sitcom “Mrs. Goldberg” in mind:

And, as I mentioned, Lillian’s schmuck father, who disappears when she is a girl but reappears later in her life only to try to get his hustle his share of her fortune, brings to mind this recent book**, which recounts numerous similar stories.  

My only real quibble is for Gillman’s editor. The cover of the edition I got pictures a woman’s feet, in fashionable high heeled shoes, next to a dropped ice cream cone. But Lillian’s disability from the childhood accident, and her subsequent dependence on a cane and special shoes, is crucial to the story. So…why the stylish heels? Oh well.

That’s it, though – everything else was smooth, creamy perfection for me.

* It was specifically Blue Bell brand, as I’m from Texas, and Blue Bell is definitely the best ice cream of all time.

** For more on this, check out the relatively new compilation, A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, by Isaac Metzker and Harry Golden. The Bintel Brief was a real advice column which handled questions of new Jewish immigrants, and also included countless pleas for help in finding lost or missing relatives.

 

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Transient

 Paul O’Rourke, the main character in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is a dentist with a difficult personality. Single, and never been married, he obsesses over the Red Sox and constantly hounds his dental hygienists and assistants with his wild general theories. His refusal to set up a website or facebook page for the dental practice prompts one of his office assistants to comment “You alienate yourself from society.” As an example of what I mean when I say Paul seems difficult, here’s just part of his three-page response: “Don’t think I’m not haunted knowing that I might be missing out on things that I’d much prefer not to be missing out on. I am haunted, Betsy. You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society. That doesn’t mean I have anything against other people. Envy them? Of course. Marvel at them? Constantly. Secretly study them? Every day. I just don’t get any closer to understanding them. And liking something you don’t understand, estranged from it without reason, longing to commune with it – who’d ask for it? I ask you, Betsy – who would ask for it?’”  It’s exhausting to get through Paul's endless monologues, both spoken and internal: he glances a magazine on a street corner with a headline about a celebrity, and we have to slog through two pages of him wondering who the celebrity is and whether he should know about it and what it means that it doesn’t, etc. I can’t tell how much of To Rise Again is Ferris thinking that he’s being funny or Ferris trying to portray someone else who thinks he’s funny (but isn’t). The book's snarky epigraph reads: “ ‘Ha, Ha’ – Job 39:25” which makes me think lean toward the former. Though other reviewers of this book have called it "brave" and "daring," I really don't think Paul displays any particularly prescient insight with his social gaffes/knack for saying the rudest thing possible. It seems that Ferris's "explanation" for all this is that when Paul was ten, his father committed suicide, apparently leading directly  to Paul's atheism and penchant for social impropriety. 

Paul has an interest in Judaism because of one of his ex-girlfriends, who was Jewish and whose Jewish family Paul liked being around. But Paul proclaims he cannot believe in God, and he doesn’t understand anyone who does. His attempts to delve a little deeper into life indicate that he’s still in the shallow end: “I’ve tried reading the Bible. I never make it past all the talk about the firmament…It appears to go like this: firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus…For all I know, the high-water mark is to be found in, say, the second book of Kings. Imagine making it through the first book of Kings!” Or later, trying again to read: “ ‘Agag cowers on the charnel cliff, wondering – in a twist on this type of story, in which the prophet always knows from the first gust of heavenly wind on his cheek just who’s talking – if it’s really God he’s seeing or, considering all the s*** he’s been through, just a hallucination, the first documented case of PTSD.’” I’ve heard these jokes a million times before, and Paul/Ferris isn’t the first to be irreverent to the Bible. Most Reform rabbis do it at some point during the average Torah study. So that's why I wondered if Ferris thought he was being genuinely, originally daring and/or funny with this.

The strange plot of the book is that someone sets up a fake website for Paul under Paul's name, and identifies Paul as a believer and member of the “Ulm” religious sect. Through e-mail contact with his mysterious alter-persona, Paul learns that the Ulms are a lost, break-off group of ancient Hebrews whose defining credo is that they doubt the existence of God. Initially, Paul is outraged at the fake website and statements that are being attributed to him about the Ulm religion, but gradually, his correspondence with the mysterious website provider and other “Ulms” softens him to Ulm ideas.

Ferris seems to have two agenda items in his exploration of the fake “Ulm” religion. One is the idea of doubt - that somehow there isn’t room for it in other religions. While belief in God is an integral part of Judaism, this doesn’t mean there isn’t ample room for questioning God and anything God does as well. Abraham questions God about Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses pleads for a viewing of God’s face, just for reassurance that everything Moses is doing is for a reason. The mere presence of the book of Job, in which Job insults God, multiple times, in the biblical canon suggests that doubt and questioning were considered legitimate and important feelings. I’m sure Ferris knows all this, so perhaps I’m missing his greater point, too.

Ferris also seems to be poking a bit at the supposed confines of conversion to Judaism. Both Paul and his online alter-persona (who turns out to be a real person – the plot is just a bit bizarre) had attempted to convert to Judaism, at some point, but were blocked by strict Orthodox rabbis who informed them that despite their conversion, they would never really belong: “ ‘And it doesn’t matter…that I want to bring more children into the world, more Jews, grandchildren for your father, who I will raise according to the custom and law of the Jews? I elect all of this, but you’re telling me in your father’s eyes it would be better for you to marry some Jew-by-the-numbers, so long as he was born a Jew?’” There is no refutation, and I think Ferris makes a poor choice with this omission. There are many places both in Torah and in Talmud and other rabbinic commentaries that stress the importance of accepting the convert to Judaism. Maimonides, in  Hilkhot De'ot 6:4 states: "Love for a ger who has come under the wings of the Divine Presence comprises two positive commandments: one, because he is now among one’s fellows; and the other, because he is a convert, and the Torah says, "You shall love the ger." Of course it’s true that certain branches of Judaism have been exceedingly unwelcome to converts (or “Jews-by-choice” as most Reform/conservative Jews say now) but I find it odd that Ferris presents this attitude without alternative. Ulms, apparently, welcome converts more readily: “ ‘…That God has instructed His people to doubt. If a new reclaimant can accept that on faith, he doesn’t need to secure the ancestral records of each and every one of us.’”

Toward the end of the book, Ferris threw in a few surprises that made me think perhaps he really is as great a writer as all the reviews say. Paul, apparently, isn’t a totally terrible person, as he casually tosses this off: “When I decided to stop buying things, years ago, I started saving my money with the intention of doing something good for the world. Rather than buy whatever I had my eye on, I tallied the suggested retail price, and at the end of the year added everything together and made a big donation to a cause I believed in. Haiti. Hunger. Starting families off with some farm animals. As far as I could tell, it never got us anywhere. Haiti was still a mess, malnutrition was on the rise…but the only real difference I saw was an uptick in my junk mail.” Paul's gruff good intentions keep it interesting, at least. But it seems isolated. And then this amusing little insight, as Paul wanders the mall:  “When I was a kid and everything inside our house was familiar, cheap, and ruined, walking into Pottery Barn was like entering heaven…My dream was to surround myself one day with everything in the store, with wicker baskets and scented candles…but I had already gone through a period of buying everything there was to buy at Pottery Barn and decorating my apartment like a Pottery Barn outlet…now everything at Pottery Barn looked ersatz and mass-produced. To buy any of it now would be to regress in aspiration and selfhood….”

But - that was about it. It’s  a puzzling book. Ferris/Paul seems to take a pretty snarky, condescending view of religions. Someone tells Paul: “ ‘I wish I could have been a Christian…I’d have someone to the left of me and someone to the right always ready with an answer, whatever the problem, amens and potlucks, little talks with Jesus, and peace for life everlasting.’” Obviously, that’s an insulting and simplistic view of religion, and demonstrates an ego that leaves no room for real questioning – the type that could lead to a more meaningful existence and loving relationships.  Remarks like these are seemingly left without any counterbalance. I don’t know, of course, if Ferris is leaving those remarks there specifically to upset the reader, thereby prompting the reader to create his or her own defensive arguments and thereby making Ferris ultimately come out on the side of religion. As in, Ferris is actually trying to hold up a mirror to the sneering types, rather than adulate them. Regardless, as I said, it was a chore to get through this book (not unlike, say, a trip to the dentist?). There are more artistic ways to convey the importance and the place of doubt, and to validate the experiences of those who struggle to believe in God. To Rise Again felt to me like a late-night college freshman bull session. Those can be important discussions, for sure, but I don’t really have the patience to voluntarily get through over 300 pages of it. Especially when there’s so much profanity, and the character is so incredibly annoying, which just becomes boring after a while. 


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