Birthday in Kishinev by Fannie Steinberg shows the joys and dangers of growing up Jewish in Russia.
While there is comfort in the main character and her immediate family surviving and thriving, the horrors of a pogrom are described briefly, but in enough detail that I would not recommend this for young children. [SPOILER] After the pogrom is over, a cousin explains, “The Cossacks murdered Kalman and his entire family. We . . . Their bodies were . . .” He stopped to dry his eyes. “It wasn’t possible to have separate funerals. We had to have one family funeral.” [p. 75]
The book starts with a lovely party to celebrate Sarah turning 12 and being seen as a potential bride for a young scholar. But that night, Sunday, April 6, 1903, the Kishinev pogrom starts. Yarina, a Russian woman who works for the family rescues them and even promises to try to kill Sarah’s father if the peasants discover Sarah’s family. The pogrom is so terrible that leaders of other countries ask the Tzar to stop it and he does—which shows that worldwide outrage can affect change. Sarah wonders why the Russians want to get rid of the Jews, but nonetheless won’t let them leave. Someone tells her that they want the boys for the army, but that’s not why.
This is a first novel by a retired woman who took a creative writing course; she writes well and the book does not feel amateurish. Sarah’s family is very observant and Ms. Steinberg explains many of their rituals and actions. When they hurriedly flee their home, Sarah’s parents grab a prayer book, candlesticks, prayer shawl, and Bible. Sarah would have said tallis, not prayer shawl, and siddur, not prayer book, but the audience for this book is not that familiar with her world. I was surprised that men and women danced together at the birthday party, but I think Orthodoxy has become stricter than it was then.