Sidebar Article: Old World rejection
In the beginning, Richard Brawer planned to write only a brief family history for his children.
But before he knew it, the retired merchant was venturing back to his native Paterson, where he began combing through documents in the public library and attending lectures on the citys storied past. A history buff by nature, Brawer became consumed with a bigger idea a historical novel that told the little-known tale of the silk industry that for so many decades dominated the northern New Jersey city. And he would use his own family as the basis for the story.
The whole thing started about 10 years ago as something for the kids, says Brawer, 63, who lives in Ocean and has published five mysteries since closing his linen and curtain store in 1998. But there was so much material to work with that a book seemed like something worth doing. I dont think most people are aware that Paterson was a major industrial city. Its like a forgotten slice of American history, Brawer told NJ Jewish News.
A slice of Jewish history, too. Thats because Jews were intimately involved in Patersons textile enterprises, as both owners and workers, of course. Brawers grandfather, for instance, ran one of the citys many silk mills. And so the author used anecdotes gleaned from relatives recollections, along with bits and pieces of family history that he found in old copies of The Paterson Evening News, to create his protagonist, the wily and entrepreneurial Abraham Bressler.
His fictitious exploits form the basis of Brawers recently published Silk Legacy, a fast-moving, richly detailed saga that traces the struggles of an extended Jewish family trying to adapt and succeed in the Golden Land in the early 1900s. A deft storyteller with a knack for plot twists, Brawer takes the reader on a classic immigrants journey from Latvia to Ireland to New Jersey, where his lead character uses any means necessary to cash in on the American dream.
Abes capitalist pursuits, however, bump up against the burgeoning labor movement, in more ways than one. Fast on his feet and equally quick with his fists, Abe becomes the family patriarch but is perennially at odds with one of his four brothers, a strident and dogmatic union leader. Meanwhile, Abes wife, Sarah, rebels against her husbands tyrannical ways by very publicly joining the suffragettes, whose bold protests were aimed at gaining for women the right to vote.
Along the way, the reader meets some very real characters of the era Bill Haywood, the militant union leader; John Reed, the journalist who wrote sympathetically about the Russian Revolution of 1917; Upton Sinclair, the journalist who chronicled the exploitation of workers in his book The Jungle; Helen Keller, as she took her place in the disastrous 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, DC; and Catholina Lambert, the Paterson mill owner who dominated the citys bustling industry.
Like a loom weaving strands of yarn to create a multicolored and textured fabric, Brawer combines these various plot and character elements to create a large, variegated picture of American society at a combustible moment. At the same time, Silk Legacy illustrates how living through these stormy experiences subtly alters the Bresslers Jewishness. Their English is inflected with Yiddishisms. They eat only kosher meat. Their seder is sacrosanct. But Abe switches to the Conservative shul and privately detests the Old World clannishness that keeps Patersons Jews apart from the greater society.
I wrote about a Jewish family and based it loosely on my own family, says Brawer, whose cousins continue to run the family yarn business. But I didnt want to make it a totally Jewish book, because its really a broader story. And I wanted a broader audience.
He may reach an even wider audience than he has imagined. One of his daughters wrote a screenplay based on the book and Brawer says that a Hollywood producer, whom he declines to name, recently picked up an option to make a movie of Silk Legacy. Of course, whether that will actually happen is unclear. Producers frequently option stories, but, for any number of reasons, movies dont always get made.
Nonetheless, Brawer is pleased that, after a decade of research and writing, his little family project has mushroomed into something that others can enjoy.
Id like everyone to learn a little history, because you know that old saying people who dont know the past are doomed to repeat it, he says. There are lessons to be learned by going back and understanding what happened in Paterson then. Thats really everyones legacy.
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