Book Bag: ‘Teaching English to Refugees’ by Robert Radin; ‘Out of Order’ by Howard Faerstein

Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2021

Teaching English to Refugees by Robert Radin; Ibidem Press


Robert Radin, the director of citizenship and immigration services for Springfield’s Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, has worked with immigrants and refugees from some of the most troubled places in the world: Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Eritrea.

He also previously spent years teaching English to many of those people, an experience he relates in “Teaching English to Refugees,” a memoir in which he also explores some of his own history, his ideas on language acquisition, and what he’s learned from his students,

Radin, who lives in Hadley and also works as a translator, takes an unconventional approach to his book, which at times reads like a memoir, at times like an essay, and even occasionally like a nonfiction story. He begins with a description of one of his classes, in which he’s trying to figure out some way to connect English words to objects and actions.

He uses pictures of utensils at one point, then uses real utensils and has the students learn the words of the tools; then he pantomines various steps in using the utensils to prepare a meal — using a knife to chop garlic, for instance, and heating olive oil in a saucepan — and has students describe what he does for each step of the procedure.

His goal, he writes, is to find a way that his students can learn English in the same way they learned their native languages as children: absorbing it in day-to-day activities. “Language is a form of collective memory,” he writes. 

“Teaching English to Refugees” also offers brief but vivid snapshots of some of his students; Radin does what he can as a friend to help ease their passage into their new country. At one point, two sisters from Iraq, Noor and Zana, come to him for advice. The older sister, Noor, wants to divorce her husband, an Iraqi man she married after both came to the U.S., as the marriage is in trouble.

“I know a good lawyer,” Radin says to the sisters.

In a phone call, Radin, who also once taught English to Polish and Russian immigrants in Chicopee, says his experience taught him to think differently about language and what it means to different people. For instance, he says many of his Muslim students in particular were quite religious and would thank him for his work by saying “God bless you.”

“I would wonder, ‘What do I say to that?’” he said. ‘What does it mean? Is it OK to say ‘God bless you, too?’”

Stories of the violence and hatred some of his students have left behind send Radin, who grew up in California, also flashing back to some of the anti-Semitism he experienced growing up, such as when several children from a Catholic family trapped him in a closet and shouted “You killed Christ!”

He also recalls a near-fatal accident in 1991 when, en route from California to attend an MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his car was hit by a truck in Colorado when the driver feel asleep.

A police officer told him it was a miracle he wasn’t dead: “Jesus Christ saved you today. He’s giving you a second chance.”

Radin said he studied philosophy as an undergraduate, an experience that also “plays a big role in how I deal with the world. So I wanted to write a book that brings together different ideas and my experiences and how that all feeds back on itself.”

As one reviewer of “Teaching English to Refugees” puts it, the book weaves together “memoir, philosophy of language, social-justice advocacy, and graphic narrative into a haunting meditation on what can happen when the least powerful among us escape oppression and seek refuge in the United States.”


Out of Order by Howard Faerstein; Main Street Rag Publishing Co.


Florence poet Howard Faerstein got a somewhat late formal start in his field, publishing his first collection of poems in 2013 after he’d spent many years working in New York state’s former Off-Track Betting operation. But he’s also written and published work in different journals over the years, and he’s now released his third collection, “Out of Order.”

In free verse and the occasional prose poem, Faerstein, a former adjunct professor of American literature, riffs on a number of subjects: memory, aging, New York City, traveling. There’s also a nod to the strange time of COVID-19 in “Something in the Air,” a lament for the way the pandemic has kept people apart, though the poem has some moments of grim humor.

“Now that stillness and plague / Now that all has changed // Do I dare tell you not to visit / Do I dare say I’m afraid I’ll be your death // I can’t kiss you now can’t hug you / You probably shouldn’t be here.”

“Even biting into this chunk of pineapple / cordoned off by yellow caution tape … even as cardboard coffins are left in the streets of Guayaquil / and refrigerated trucks wait outside the city morgue / evening comes ...”

Another ode, this one to Alan Ginsberg, offers imaginative comparisons to the famous Beat poet: “Like Iceland’s oystercatchers feeding in / the mist & rising fumes, like the snow leopard I saw endangered this / solstice day crossing Main Street, Ginsberg in the flesh slung low over / northern hemisphere never setting, circumpolar & whether he sang or / spoke, tinny mixed Loisaida twang, he haunts me still, past death.” 

In “Mythomania,” Faerstein takes aim at the spread of propaganda and conspiracy theories masquerading as news and twisting minds, “like lava burying the green hillside … Some believe the children / slaughtered in their classrooms / were phantoms, never existed.” 

“From glaciers and Cossacks to present day ‘falsifiers’ and New York jazz clubs,” writes one reviewer, “Howard Faerstein’s curious mind and associations will leave you breathless.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.