The news of the past week has largely revolved around questions of immigration and citizenship. With that in mind, a recently released novel caught our eye: “A Cobbler’s Tale,” by Neil Perry Gordon, explores his family’s struggle for survival as Jewish immigrants passing through Ellis Island into the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century. We had an opportunity to talk to Mr. Gordon about his novel, and what he learned about the Jewish immigrant experience in the course of his writing and research.
BackStory: What prompted you to tell this story, and why did you choose to tell it as a novel?
Gordon: The immigration story of my Great-grandparents, was shared among our family for as long as I can remember. However, in my novel A Cobbler’s Tale, I have taken creative liberties, dramatized many of the facts, and altered the details. The result is, an epic adventure tale of a simple cobbler from a shtetl in Galicia looking to make a better life for his family. Little did he know about the obstacles he was about to face, as he took that first step onboard the steamship to America. While at the same time, his pregnant wife, and three children would eventually face the ravages of World War 1, right in their own front yard.
BackStory: You mention that you never fully understood how Jewish immigrants lived. Were there childhood and family stories that were incorporated, or expanded upon in the novel?
Gordon: During my research, I learned about the Jewish immigrants who began their lives in the New World, and how they faced overcrowded, and overwhelming conditions in the Lower East Side. This first stop for many Jews, was a source for millions of stories of their struggles and hardships, and the birthplace of the modern American Jewish experience.
BackStory: What were some things about the immigrant experience that surprised you?
Gordon: I was surprised to learn, that during the time of the massive immigration of from Eastern Europe, there were thousands of support groups organized to assist families when they arrived in America. They called these groups Landsman Societies. By 1910, there were over two-thousand groups representing over one-hundred European cities, and towns in New York City.
BackStory: After researching and writing this novel, how has your understanding of and attitude towards your great-grandparents changed?
Gordon: The process of writing this novel has given me the ability to express my gratitude to my family, who decided to leave their homeland, the place of their births, and immigrate to a land where only rumors, and hearsay provided a glimpse into what was ahead.
BackStory: Has it altered your perspective on immigration to the United States more generally?
Gordon: I’ve always believed that having a liberal immigration policy was beneficial to the health, and wellbeing of our nation. But after writing A Cobbler’s Tale, I developed a better understanding of the heartache and courage it takes for any family, from any country, to have the fortitude to walk through that dark hole of uncertainty.