“Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story” by Leslea Newman— Coming to America

Newman, Leslea. “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story”, illustrated (beautifully) by Amy June Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019,

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

Regarding immigration, we are living I troubled times and we are certainly well aware of that. It seems even more troubling when we remember and realize that many of us are first generation Americans and we grew up with stories about coming to America. If you don’t have a personal story, you borrow “Gittel’s Journey”, the wonderful and sensitive new book by the amazing Leslea Newman. We immediately see how important it is for the young community to understand what the importance of coming to this country is and especially not having to face a wall to get in.

Gittel is nine-years-old when she and her mother leave “The Old Country” to come to America. They do not just leave physically; this is also an emotional journey as they leave friends, possessions and memories. There is no room in a suitcase for memories. Gittel wants to bring Frieda, their goat but her mother tells her, “We cannot bring a goat to America”. But when they reach the boat, Mama is barred from boarding due to an eye infection, and she insists that Gittel continue without her. It is difficult to get through this part of the story with dry eyes and we know what Mama knows— it was not safe to stay in Europe at that time and Gittel knew her mother was right so she put her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks on her bundle and with her little more than what she was wearing and could put in her bundle, she boarded the boat with the address of a cousin in New York City and began her journey to Ellis Island and America. It’s not a new story, we have heard it many times before but today it is especially important. To have Leslea Newman tell it to us is a ”mehayeh”.

The mixed-media images by Bates are washed in yellows and browns and framed by woodblock motifs and give us a sense of the historical context. They  beautifully capture emotions. Speaking of emotions, Leslea Newman injects true emotion into the story in the form of fear, excitement and loneliness and with sharp insight she modulates those emotions with both restraint and warmth We can only imagine how difficult it was to write about a young girl leaving everything she knew behind but then  she also must leave her mother. Of course things will work out but if we put ourselves in Gittel’s place and try to imagine what she felt, we get an entirely new take on leaving home.

Now I have a selfish story to interject here that also has something to say about restarting life in a new place. Way back when, I had decided to leave America and move to Israel— it had become my Jewish and Zionist responsibility to build the land. I was in the auto with my mother driving to the airport when I could no longer control my tears. My mother looked over at me and asked why I was crying. (At that time, I did not know that I would ever see anyone from my family again and my father and I did not part on good terms). I answered her saying that it was very difficult to say goodbye and she responded with, “Think about how many new hellos you will say” and that beautiful thought is always with me as it was with Gittel as it probably was with Gittel.

There is not a lot of text in the story but every word is a pearl and the design of the book is just gorgeous. The ending is a tear-jerker but one that leaves you feeling complete and emotionally happy. Leslea decided to tell this tale that obviously means a great deal to her. We learn that this is the story of her grandmothers coming to America.

I think it is only fair to say that I am a huge fan of Leslea Newman  and if you have read my reviews in the past, you might remember that I mentioned that one of the first books I reviewed was Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” and it was that experience that caused me to decide to continue reviewing. I wanted to share my excitement about reading our literature. I have reviewed many of Newman’s writings—- she has written seventy books for adults and children and it is my goal to read them all.

For those of you in the Boston area, Leslea will be with my temple, Temple Sinai of Brookline, during the weekend of March 30 and will speak to the entire temple on Friday night as our Rainbow Shabbat speaker and on Sunday she will speak to my adult learning class as part of my series, “Judaism and the LBGT Community: An Exploration”.