Abandoned on Ellis Island at the age of five, Dinah Gudinsky was forced to grow up too soon in order to survive turn-of-the-century New York City. Eleven years later, spunky and street-smart Dinah knows every crook and corner of the place she's come to call her home: the Lower East Side. Despite its dirty, over-crowded tenements, dangerous factories, and onslaughts of Jewish immigrants fresh from Russia, Dinah loves the mischief and adventure of her city and can't imagine her life anywhere else-until she meets Ephraim Appel.
Stubborn and ambitious, Ephraim and his family came to America in search of a better life, but he is disgusted by what he finds in the Lower East slums. Although determined to show Ephraim the excitement and beauty of her beloved city, for the first time in her life Dinah finds herself intrigued by Ephraim's "American Dream" of a homestead out west. But everything changes when young and presumptuous foreman of her factory Leo Zalkind, whom she has known since they were children, threatens that if Dinah does not marry him, he will not only throw her loved ones out into the streets, but will also expose a dark, deep secret from her childhood. Fearing there is no way to escape him, Dinah realizes she must figure out a way to get rid of Leo in order to save her family and safe-keep the secrets of her past.
But all her plans come to a sudden halt when a fire breaks out, trapping Dinah inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and leaving her to fear that all she will ever know is the smoke and sweat of the industrial age of New York City.
I ran blindly through the crowds at Ellis Island, pushing and scampering past the tall men in long coats and ladies with babushkas covering their dark heads as fast as my little feet would carry me. I will never be able to explain the terror I felt that day-utterly lost in a country I didn't know with people who spoke seemingly every language but mine. I cried out for everyone-my mamaleh, my Tateh, my brothers and sisters whose names are now long lost from my memory. But no one cried back. And even in my young 5-year-old heart, I knew that they were gone forever.
There came a time when I gave up hope of finding them. I sat down, I'm not sure for how long it was, but it felt like an incredibly long time, and clutched my knees to my chest, tears streaming down my face as the sky grew dark and night overtook the harbor. I pinched my eyes closed, remembering what night would have been like had we never left Russia. Mamaleh would have tucked me and my twin brother, whose hair was the same tangled mess of twisted brown-red curls as mine, into our bed with a bit of leftover bagel from that morning. We were always hungry, even right before bedtime. She would have kissed our foreheads before singing us a lullaby, soft and sweet, in her beautifully lilting Yiddish...
Then, as if I were still in my day dream, I could hear the distant but familiar Yiddish. "Come along, Leah! Now is not the time to shlep through this mishegas. We can't keep your brother waiting all night!"
I stood with the beautiful realization that I could understand every word he was saying, as if I were back in my village in Russia. I called out desperately, "Gevald! Help! Gevald!" And then as if by some sort of miracle from God, as I stood screaming my little Yiddish words, I felt myself being scooped up into the arms of a tall man with a long beard and a piped hat, just like my Tateh wore. But unlike my Tateh, he had blue eyes: bluer eyes than I had ever seen. In his other arm, he held a little boy who couldn't be older than three years old. The little boy had the same blue eyes as his father.
"Shh," he comforted me as he hurried along. "Are you lost, little one?" I nodded tearfully. "Don't fret, shayneh. I will take care of you. What is one more child to a man who already has four? And besides, my little Leah needs a sister with so many boys around." He nodded to the little girl running beside him to keep up with his stride, who I hadn't noticed before. She looked up at me with large, curious eyes. She looked my age, or a little older, but already carried another little boy over her shoulder. She smiled up at me, but all I could do was reach out for her hair, which was long and a shinier golden-brown then I had ever seen.
"What is your name, little one?" the man holding me asked. I burrowed closer to him and shook my head. "Don't you know?" he asked. I shook my head again. I didn't know anything. "Well now your name is going to be Gudinsky, like mine and my children's. When they ask you your name, you say 'my name is Gudinsky, like my Papa's'. But you need a first name. What should we call you?"
"Dinah!" Leah chimed in from beside him.
"Dinah," the man repeated. "Dinah Gudinsky. My name is Abram, but you can call me Tateh. Don't fret, little one. We're in America now. My eldest son Aleksander is waiting for us as we speak and he will take us to our new home. You're safe now, little Dinah. We will take care of you and you will be part of our family."
And as we stepped out into the crisp, evening air of the New York City harbor later that night, I felt the cool breeze wash over me for the first time and I knew that I was home. In that moment, as I sat balanced on the hip of my new father with my new sister to my side and the whole new world before us, I was changed. I was no longer who I had been yesterday on the boat with my family from Russia. In just a moment's time, I had become Dinah Gudinsky, ready for an adventure in my new home in America.
"You don't have to be scared anymore, little one. You are safe now."
"Wake up, sleepyhead."
I heard the shades being pulled back from the window and sunlight came streaming into the room, seeping into the slits of my closed eyes. I groaned and buried myself under the little woven blanket that Leah and I shared. She had woken much earlier, I could tell by the cool sheets on her side of the bed. But would it have killed her to let me sleep just an hour or two more?
"It's nearly the afternoon," Leah scolded mildly as she bustled around our little bedroom on the back of the apartment, picking up the boys' clothes and stowing them in a basket under her arm.. "Everyone left for work hours ago and if we don't get a move-on, they'll be back before we've done anything at all." She tsked like an old Russian bobeshi. "Sleep, sleep, sleep-it's all you ever want to do. I think you would marry sleep if you could."
"One day I will marry a man who will let me sleep all day if I'd like," I muttered under the cover of the blanket.
"I thought you said you weren't ever getting married!" Leah teased, wrenching the blanket away from me and tucking it into the basket. Putting a bossy hand on her hip, she reminded me, "Just yesterday you told me a wedding canopy may as well be a prison cell."
"If I were to meet a man who was rich enough to let me sleep until the sun is high in the sky, I would marry him," I smiled sleepily. "I would marry him in an instant."
"Feh! That will be the day!" Leah laughed, setting the basket down in the kitchen and tying her honey-gold hair back with a kerchief. "Even with five of us working day in and day out, we can barely put food on the table. Imagine how resentful your husband will become! Now get up," she said, pulling me from the bed, although I resisted. "Put some coffee on the stove while I get dressed."
I wiped my eyes wearily but did as I was told, hiding a smile. Even now all these years later, Leah still amused me with her motherly antics. As a child, I had firstly been put off by this little girl, only a year older than I, who insisted I wash my face or comb the knots out of my curls. But in the past eleven years, I had grown increasingly grateful for the caretaking she had taken upon herself as the oldest woman of the house, and she had come to serve a trinity of roles in my life: a mother, a sister, and a best friend.
After putting the coffee on the stove, I took my embroidery kit from the mantel and sat down heavily at the kitchen table, threading my needle with bright yellow. While the boys spent the day delivering newspapers and Tateh performed maintenance for the tenement buildings, Leah and I embroidered during the afternoon and sewed for the Yiddish theater at night. As far as work went, the theater was great fun. More nights than not, after I had finished my sewing for the night I would climb up to the catwalks above the stage and watch the actors and stage crew perform their routines in pure awe. The late nights didn't bother me like they did Leah. The city became alive at night and I always yearned to do more, see more.
Leah emerged from the bedroom in a clean shirtwaist and printed skirt, her hair swept and pinned up. I rolled my eyes. "Leah, you don't have to get dressed up to sit and do embroidery with me. You can't impress me-I know what you look like when you wake up."
"I was thinking," Leah said mischievously, shutting my embroidery box, "that we should take a break from embroidery today."
For a moment I considered protesting that we wouldn't be able to finish Mrs. Klotz's order on time, but decided to take advantage of Leah's rare moment of irresponsibility. "I'm listening."
"Well, we're running low on bread and cheese..." Leah began.
I scoffed and snatched my embroidery up from the table, sitting back in my seat. "Going down the street to visit Mr. Bogomolov's market stall isn't exactly exciting. And to think that I actually thought you might have developed some sense of adventure!"
"Mr. Bogomolov's cart, no. That's not exactly an adventure. But I thought going down to the harbor might be."
My looked up, startled, and met Leah's bright blue eyes as she grinned at me. "But...you hate the harbor. You always talk about how dangerous it is and tell Motel and Shmuel they aren't allowed to go..." I stammered.
"Because they're a pair of dumb boys who would surely do something stupid to get themselves in trouble! I never liked the idea of going without Tateh, but I figure that we're a pair of grown girls," Leah said, raising her chin with a tone of superiority. "We can take care of ourselves."
I kept to myself the fact that I had actually been escaping our tenement during the middle of the night to explore the harbor with Leo since I was seven years old, drinking in the colors and ethnicities as they swarmed in from the ships docked at Ellis Island. But the idea of going with Leah was so much more exciting. It was like when Leo had taken me to see a show at a Yiddish theater, but all I could think of the entire night was how much Leah would have enjoyed it and how I couldn't wait to tell her everything about it. Everything was so much more exciting with my best friend at my side.
"Now there's your sense of adventure!" I grinned and leapt out of my chair, nearly bowling Leah over with a hug.
"It won't be for long!" Leah cautioned me. "We have to be back to make supper for Tateh and the boys before we leave for the theater!"
"Oh, I don't care! I'm just so glad that you're doing something fun for once!"
She laughed and pushed me away. "Go put on some clothes and comb your hair or else I'll be embarrassed to be seen with you!"
It was only a matter of minutes before we burst out onto Orchard Street, making our way down toward Ellis Island and all the shops, smells and sights there. Although it was less than an hour's walk away from our building, the harbor always seemed much further, as if it were a whole different country. I drank it all in, my eyes darting as I took in the beauty and the eccentricity of my home. As the Yiddish and Russian melted away as we walked further and further from our neighborhood, I was overcome with the wonderful feeling that I wasn't just a Jew or a Russian or even an immigrant. I was a New Yorker, just like everyone else here.
As I twirled a curl around my finger, a bad habit of mine, I asked Leah curiously, "Leah. What gave you the idea to come down here today?"
She smiled sideways at me and batted my hand from my hair, which she had attempted with such enthusiasm to pin back from my face, but the curls had quickly escaped. "Last night when I was mending his shirt, Shmuel fell asleep, his head in my lap. And looking down at his head of curls reminded me of when I carried him into this country, right onto these streets. I remember marvelling at how I wish he could see it like I did-it was so magical and exciting. And then I wondered whether coming back to it would be just as magical and exciting as the first time."
"It is," I assured her. My cheeks hurting from smiling so much. "It really is. I promise."
Grasping onto each other, we made our way through the busy crowds of people, speaking every language imaginable. I couldn't even identify what most of them were, but it didn't scare me anymore like when I was a child. Now I just thought it was beautiful.
As the sky opened up before us and the water came into view, more and more immigrants fresh from the ships grazed through the streets, luggage on their shoulders and confusion upon their faces. Leah managed to make her way to a few vendors to haggle. I stayed by her side, but couldn't take my eyes away from the busy bustling around me.
It was then that I caught sight of a little family standing by the side of the road, looking utterly confused and lost-a mother, pretty but tired-looking, holding a tiny little girl, and a young man standing with them, burdened by their luggage. What intrigued me about them was their stillness-they were so still while everyone around them hurried.
I gestured toward the family, but Leah just waved me on without her as she haggled with the unbudging vendor. So alone, I made my way over to them, slowly and unassumingly so that they would not be afraid. But as I got closer, I was the one who became afraid. The young man, who was now looking directly at me as I walked over, was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life. Suddenly I couldn't find the words to say anything.
"Are you lost?" I finally asked, borrowing words from Tateh when he had first met me. "Do you need help?" I asked in English. He looked blankly back at me while his mother's face showed pure panic. I looked down at my shirtwaist and skirt-hand-me-downs from Leah who was still inches taller than me-and tried to think of how I could help them.
The mother nudged her son, her fearful-faced daughter still in her arms and asked him, "Nu? T'an yr p'arstyyn?"
My head snapped up. I could understand her. She was speaking Yiddish. I looked at the young man, with his light hair and his bright blue eyes. He didn't look Jewish at all. But then again, I reminded myself, neither did Leah. Not every Jew had thick, dark hair and a strong nose and round brown eyes like I did.
"Do you speak Yiddish?" I asked eagerly. All three looked back at me with such relief in their eyes, the same relief I felt when Tateh found me on Ellis Island.
"Yes," breathed the young man. "Yes, thank God you do, too."
"Yes, you're in luck," I told them with a reassuring smile. "I came from Russia when I was five. Before then, all my family ever spoke was Yiddish. But now we speak English. You will, too. It isn't awful to learn. And the Americans think all the more of you when you can speak their language. I'm Dinah," I said, extending my hand. The young man looked hesitant, but shook it.
"My name is Ephraim Appel," he introduced himself. "This is my mother Talia and my little sister Sofia." Sofia was a tiny thing, blonde and pale, grasping around her mother's neck. "My uncle was supposed to meet us at the harbor, but he never came. We shouldn't be surprised. He was a forgetful drunk even back home in the village. We're from Russia, too."
"So you have no idea where to go from here?" I asked curiously.
"Do you know of any good places to rent a room around here?" Ephraim asked.
"I'm sure there are many," I told him. "But I'm also sure they're very expensive, being right by the harbor, and most of the people don't speak any language you'd understand. You'd be better off on the Lower East Side, where we live. You'd feel right at home with all the Yids there."
"Can you take us there?" he asked. He was distracted when Leah came to my side, holding a bundle of cheese and bread in her arms.
"Hello," she greeted him with a bright smile. "I'm sorry, I'd shake your hand but mine seem to be full!" she said in fast, fluent English.
I nudged her and murmured, "Geboyrner yidish-reder." Native Yiddish-speaker.
"Oh!" she exclaimed excitedly and began to speak her beautiful, native tongue. "How wonderful! My name is Leah Gudinsky."
Ephraim looked at me. "Your sister?"
"Adoptive sister," Leah smiled. "We took little Dinah in when we first came to America. And we've been best friends ever since."
I cringed a bit, hating that Leah called me little in front of Ephraim, but I brushed it off. "This is Ephraim Appel and his mother Talia and his little sister Sofia. I was just telling them that they would feel so much more comfortable living on the Lower East Side near us."
"Oh, yes!" Leah agreed enthusiastically. "It's wonderful there," she assured Talia, who still seemed nervous. "It's as if you're back home. I could go an entire day in our neighborhood without speaking a bit of English if I didn't want to. In fact," she said, looking at me with wide eyes, "we just happen to have some space available for tenants in our apartment, if you'd be interested. We had another family living with us but they left to go West last month. If you'd like, you could stay with us while you get established in America. We can help you get settled."
"We wouldn't want to impose," Ephraim said quietly.
"Nonsense!" Leah exclaimed.
"Don't even think of it," I assured him with a smile. "We've all been in your position and it's so much easier to settle in if someone is there to help you. Our Tateh won't mind one bit. In fact, he loves the company!"
Ephraim looked to his mother. "What do you think?"
She seemed thoughtful as she looked around the harbor. "I think that they know a great deal more about this country than we do. And I think we need some help." She looked at Leah. "We will pay you for your help and lodging as soon as we have work."
"That's very kind of you," Leah replied. I knew Leah would have helped them out of the kindness of her own heart, but we both knew that inviting more people into the apartment would cause a financial strain until the money began to come in. "Would you like me to carry your daughter for you? You must be tired after so much traveling." She handed me her bundle of cheese and bread.
"She's shy," warned Talia as she handed her Sofia, but Sofia immediately curled up against Leah and rested her head on Leah's shoulder, sucking her thumb contentedly.
"My brother Motel was shy when he was little, too," Leah said, smiling down at Sofia. "But he always liked to be held like this."
"How old is she?" I asked.
"Six," Talia said, pulling the thumb away from her daughter's mouth. "She's small for her age. When my daughter Sonia was her age, she was already two heads taller."
"Where is Sonia now?" I asked curiously.
But Talia said simply, with a tone of coldness in her voice, "Gone."
"This way," Leah nodded her head to break the tension. "It's less than an hour's walk to our building. My father will be home from work soon and we can introduce you all and sit you down with some warm dinner. I can wash your clothes for you if you'd like, as well."
"You're very kind," Ephraim told her as they walked along. "Is there much work where you live?"
"There are many factories, yes," I told him. "But they're very dangerous and dirty. Tateh would never allow us to work in one. But skilled work is harder to find. Do you have a trade?" I asked.
"No," he replied. "We owned a dairy farm back at the village. I don't know how to do anything else."
"My brothers work as newsies," Leah said over her shoulder. "Or newspaper boys. But I think you might be a little old for that job. How old are you?"
"Eighteen. How old are you?" he asked in a mildly childish tone.
"Seventeen. Dinah is sixteen. We both work at the Yiddish theater near our building, sewing costumes. Talia, do you sew?"
"She made the clothes on all of our backs," Ephraim said proudly.
"Then I'm sure they'll find a position for you. And you too, Ephraim. They're always in need of new stagehands. We can bring you there tonight when we go to work."
"Wonderful," Ephraim said gratefully. "I'm so glad I found you two."
"Pardon me, but I believe we found you," I said with exaggerated airs.
He turned to me and surprised me by laughing for the first time, a laugh that crinkled his eyes and showed the dimples in his cheeks. I smiled back at him, happy to see him happy. But that was my mistake. I stumbled over a crack in the pavement and stumbled to the ground, my cheeks instantly reddening from embarrassment.
Leah laughed like she always did when I fell-a common occurrence it seemed. "Don't worry about her. Dinah is always a bit unstable-one reason I'm glad we're not sisters by blood! Otherwise I would never be able to keep my dresses clean!" As she turned to lead Talia onward, Ephraim stooped to take my hand and help me up.
"Are you alright?" he asked with sympathetic eyes.
"It happens all the time," I assured him, taking his hand. And when I did, it felt comforting and sensitive like nothing I had ever felt before. I looked up at Ephraim, wondering if he had felt the same rush, the same tingling as I had when we touched. But when I looked at him, my heart sank. Because I was looking at him, but he only had eyes for Leah, lovingly carrying his sister and eagerly chatting with his mother.