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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

August 21, 2018 by

A Female Friendship From the Catskills to the Wider World

bess and frimaWhen Bess and Frima―both 19, best friends, and from the same Jewish background in the Bronx―get summer jobs in upstate hotels near Monticello, NY, in June 1940, they each have dreams of love, but love means something different to each of them. Frima seeks safety and finds it with Bess’s brother Jack. Rebellious Bess renames herself Beth and plunges into a new life with Vinny, an Italian American, former Catholic, left-wing labor leader from San Francisco. Her actions are totally unacceptable to her parents―which is fine with Beth, who is eager to reinvent herself outside the tight and suffocating bonds of family.

As Alice Rosenthal’s novel of friendship, Bess and Frima, unfolds, the menace of world war is growing, and Beth and Frima must grow up fast. Balancing love, ambition, religion, family, and politics, each young woman faces challenges she never imagined in her girlhood. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Alice Rosenthal about the personal history she mined to write this tender story.

YZM: This novel has a strong sense of place—or places—and both the Bronx and the Catskills are lovingly evoked.  Are these places that figured strongly in your own life?  

AR:  Very much so.  I was born and raised in the same northwest Bronx neighborhood Bess and Frima lived in bordered by Van Courtlandt Park.  Frima’s first child, Lena, would have been my age.  The neighborhood did not begin to change demographically or physically until the late 1950s, so we shared the same apartment houses, streets, subways, schools, libraries, shops, and park—our back yard. 

My parents were not kosher and they were not observant in any way, so the Borscht circuit culture was not especially attractive or necessary to them. I suspect that with all their tolerance, they had mixed feelings about it—rather like Hannah Eisner.  We spent a few summer vacations in Catskill towns—Saugerties, Phoenicia, Woodstock, Pine Hill, and I’d guess that a lot of the vacationers were Jewish but secular, just like my parents’ friends who were with us. I wasn’t aware of any notable Jewish quality to them. But, then, most of the people I knew were New York Jews, from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. I remember bacon on the menu in the dining rooms, like home, which made me quite happy. I did spend one summer with my sister and my grandmother at an Ellenville kosher hotel.  I recall that the place was quite pretty, a big white main house, well-kept lawns, walking trails, full of wildflowers, pines, poison ivy, berry patches.

I drew on this hotel in describing The Alpine Song; I also spent summer months at a farm/boarding house owned by some elderly cousins, where my father and his brothers and sister had spent their summers. It still retained a cow and calf, chickens, an old plow horse, but it was fast becoming a modest resort.  Its evolution was very akin to Eisner’s, Frima’s family farm. 

YZM: Bess and Frima are so very different from one another. Is this a clue to female friendships in general?

AR:  I was interested in what makes for strong sisterhood.  Both Bess and Frima are based physically on young women I remember admiring when I was a child. They stood out as attractive in complementary ways. People said the same thing about my older sister and me. There is another parallel: my sister and I also had far different talents and personalities. Our problem was, sad to say, that not until middle age were we of much use to each other. So, I wanted to portray a positive, nurturing sisterhood. 

Since I doubted this relationship could be born in the same nuclear family, I thought two young women who were close neighbors and fast friends would better serve as my fictional protagonists. Bess and Frima yearn for and achieve this lasting connection, both because of their similarities and their differences and, because they are not blood sisters. They share a lot: intelligence, creative talent, age, and culture.  Less obvious is a loneliness they share from the absence in their lives of a caring, guiding father, and this influences them both to enter precipitous relations with men in that prewar summer. I see Bess and Frima as alter egos, both in their similarities and because their contrasting physical and emotional features complement and strengthen each other. Their creative talents are too different to cause envy or jealousy.  Instead they are free to encourage each other.  Bess’s impulsiveness is tempered by Frima’s reserve.  Because one respects and admires the other’s strengths, they can be separate, yet close—nourished by their differences. 

YZM:  The women in this novel seem stronger, more directed and more enduring than the men—care to comment? 

AR:  A very interesting comment that leads me to view my characters through a different lens, but I also question it as a blanket description. Vinny is a strong man; just not the appropriate, long-time partner for Bess/Beth, so I killed him off during the war so that she is free to meet Eduardo, whom I do consider a strong male character and a fitting partner for her. It’s true that Lou (Hannah’s first husband) died when Frima was a child, leaving the widowed Hannah to be a strong, loving, and guiding person in Frima’s life, as well as a model of a highly competent business woman, but Lou had been deeply, if more quietly, involved with his daughter, and his influence is evident in her love of the farm that is his bequest to her. The ubiquitous Moe Greenberg does not have the same “fire in the belly” of his wife, Judith, who gives her life for women’s right to choose.  But both he and Leon (Hannah’s second husband) are the bedrock on which this Catskill vacation culture is built. The only two significant men that I deliberately drew as weak are Jack and his father, Sam.  Jack is miles ahead of Sam in charm, intelligence, and wit, but both suffer from a destructive narcissism.  There are a couple of male hotel guests that are creeps, but nothing unusual there—we’ve all met those. 

YZM: In talking about Vinny, one of the characters says, “But more that he’s not Jewish, and he’s a red to boot. Now tell me, when has Russia ever been anything but trouble for the Jews?” Do you think this reflects a common attitude felt by Jews of the period?   

AR: You know what they say: Put two Jews at a table and you have an argument –political, more often as not. People in Jack’s Bronx Jewish neighborhood overwhelmingly identified as Democrats—it was the norm. But there were radical factions, right and left that were more vocal and energized as the war in Europe loomed.  It would certainly not be unusual for the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to feel that Russia was an enemy of the Jews.  Many of these newcomers were survivors of pogroms or other indignities at the hands of the Russians, and would be suspect of any Russians, including the Soviets. My own grandfather had joined the Bolsheviks in Russia before he came here. But as a settled citizen of his adopted country, he had very little use for the Russian government and population, socialist or not. Jack’s attitude was probably widespread. It was a particularly contentious issue, especially since the Communist Party in NYC, with a large Jewish component that was vocally pro-Soviet, believed that Stalin and his armies were the main bulwark against the Nazis and fascists in this period before America entered the war.   

YZM:How does your novel Take the D Train take a different angle on the lives of Bess and Frima?  

AR: My previously published novel Take the D Train depicts the lives of Bess and Frima as they mature. It brings them into the 1950s. A pivotal background event for both women is the Rosenberg trial and execution, an issue of great concern and contention for Jews of all persuasions. Their reactions to these events catalyze significant change and growth in their relationships and aspirations. Bess and Frima can be considered a prequel to Take the D Train, although it works well as a stand-alone novel too.  

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