Yuri Suhl’s One Foot in America is republished 60 years later
Friday, 09 September 2011 20:39


onefootinamericaBy Irena Karshenbaum

For The Jewish Free Press

It was March 1, 1979. I was eight. I can still remember sitting on a plane coming to Canada. We were flying from Rome to Montreal and I was tired. The salon was as arid as the Sinai desert. The static haloed my hair and the dry air parched my throat. My parents and I played cards to pass the time. In an attempt to quench my endless thirst, I kept drinking Coke, the only available beverage, which was still foreign to my Soviet palate. When the plane landed at Mirabel, all the passengers clapped with joy. After a long flight, we had finally set foot on Canadian soil.


Having cleared immigration, my family trekked, for what seemed like kilometers, through an endless tunnel of the airport hotel where we would spend our first night in our new country. We burst into the hotel room overcome with curiosity as to what hotel rooms look like in the New World. “The toilette is flooded!” my Father yelled and my Mother and I rushed to the bathroom to inspect this marvel. We quickly learned that the toilette was not flooded. North American, unlike European toilettes, contained water, and as we soon experienced, for good reason.


These are the recollections of my passage to Canada during the Soviet Jewish immigration wave of the 1970s. But what were these experiences like for previous generations of immigrations? As we look at old photographs of immigrants who came through Ellis Island and Pier 21, we see their images but their voices are silent.


A newly republished “One Foot in America” by Yuri Suhl gives voice to the immigrant experience of the early 20th century. Set in the mid 1920s, the autobiographical novel centers on Shloime (Sol) Kenner’s tale of coming to America.


Having left Pedayetz, their Galician shtetle, we meet Shloime in Antwerp with his widowed father, Chaim, as they are about to set sail for the New World. But first, they are separated and Sol must sail alone at the age of 14, watched over only by strangers, to New York.


Through the vivid voice of Sol, those silent old photographs suddenly come to life with the sights, sounds and smells of a journey to America. “Their baggage consisted of straw baskets, rusty trunks, and pillowcases stuffed with their most cherished belongings.” Reading about Sol’s journey puts my only slightly uncomfortable flight by plane into perspective. “The sharp smells of onion, garlic, herring, salami, and moldy bread mingled with the strong odors of sweaty, unwashed bodies, dirty socks, and tobacco smoke, and fused into a thin vapor that rose to the ceiling and made the walls perspire.”  


Sol’s coming to America, separated from my arrival to Canada by more than 55 years, is remarkably similar in its joy. As the passengers were coming down the gangplank, one of the immigrants yelled, “Remember, my friends! Remember the day we are setting foot on American soil. October 22, 1923, a day I have been dreaming about all my life.”


Sol relishes his new life with as much vigour as he devours the white rolls, which in Pedayetz were the privilege of the rich. He is reunited with his father and the duo sets out to make their way in the New World. Sol quickly abandons the old ways in favour of the new. Sol replaces his father’s dream of him becoming a rabbi with a profession with more financial potential. Sol becomes a butcher boy. He forgets his best friend, Moishele, in Pedayetz by ignoring his letters. Sol becomes infatuated with Shirley, an American-born girl, whom he tries to impress nightly by buying the most expensive item on the menu of her parent’s restaurant, a banana split.


Food features prominently in the novel as hunger had been a constant in Sol’s life. Chaim had neglected his financial obligations to his family in favour of religious study and matters became even worse with the outbreak of the First World War.


Having settled in New York, Chaim searches for his place in the strange land of American consumerism, “The dollar is a god here,” he would say mournfully. “In America they worship the golden calf.” But living in a city brimming with economic life, even the religious and malcontent Chaim finds his niche with the help of a new love.


Originally published in 1950, the book was eventually forgotten. About ten years ago, Toronto journalist and writer, Bill Gladstone, stumbled on an old copy of the book in a second-hand bookstore. He was so impressed with the story that he promised himself that if ever he would become a publisher he would republish the book. Gladstone did considerable research about Suhl. He could not find a photo of the author, discovering that Suhl was divorced and when he died in 1986 he left no heirs. As a result the book was considered “orphaned” and Gladstone was able to republish it.


According to Gladstone, the autobiographical novel should not be considered a literal biography explaining that; “Suhl based it loosely on his own life.” This technique contributes to the vivid nature of the story; I felt as if I was there. “One Foot in America” is refreshingly innocent, simple and sweet. This purity makes it a must read.


Copies of “One Foot in America” can be purchased by contacting its Western Canadian distributor:

Sherwood House

Phone: (403) 474-5599

Fax: (403) 474-5463

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(Irena Karshenbaum is the founding president of The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ]

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