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Local poet wins Jewish children’s book award: Lesléa Newman’s “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story” is about an immigrant uniting with family members

  • Lesléa Newman, seen here a few years ago in her Holyoke home, has won two awards for her 2019 children’s story, “Gittel’s Journey.” She has also won a Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award (she has written over 70 books). Aossociated Press file photo

  • Newman’s story “Gittel’s Journey” is based on two family-related immigration stories she heard growing up. Courtesy image



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 30, 2020

Valley author and former Northampton poet laureate Lesléa Newman has won a National Jewish Book Award for children’s literature for her 2019 book “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story,” a tale that’s based on some real-life stories Newman heard from family and friends as she was growing up (the book is illustrated by Amy June Bates).

That’s not all: “Gittel’s Journey” has garnered Newman a Silver Medal from the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards, and she has also won a Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award. The Sydney Awards recognize books for children and teens that exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.

In an email, Newman said she didn’t know if she’d ever been nominated for a National Jewish Book Award before and was thrilled to win. “I have to admit, I cried when I heard the news. It’s a huge honor to be on the roster along with so many legendary past winners, many of whom I’ve been reading all my life.”

That list, she noted, includes not only people such as Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevitz Singer, and Cynthia Ozick but Valley writers like Barbara Diamond Goldin, Richard Michelson, Jane Yolen, Ilan Stavans, and “the late great Mordicai Gerstein.”

In a statement, she also said she got a phone call about the Sydney Award recently as she was watching the Screen Actors Guild Awards on TV, where Robert De Niro was giving a thank-you speech after being winning a lifetime achievement award.

“I was half-listening and half-fantasizing about the people I would thank if I ever won such an award,” she said. “I thought I must be dreaming.”

In Newman’s book, 9-year-old Gittel, who lives in an Eastern Europe shtetl in the early 1900s, is supposed to go with her mother to America, where they’ll live with her mother’s cousin, Mendel. But as they’re about to board the ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, her mother is denied passage because of an eye infection.

Gittel’s mother insists her daughter go to America by herself: “Home is not safe for us … This is God’s plan. God will take care of you.” She gives Gittel two Shabbat​​​ (Sabbath) candlesticks, as well as a piece of paper with Mendel’s address in New York City, telling her not to lose the paper. Through a sad and lonely trip aboard the big liner, Gittel holds tightly to the paper for safekeeping.

But at Ellis Island in New York, she discovers the ink on the paper has become hopelessly smeared, most of it rubbing off on her hand. Gittel is terrified — until a friendly translator speaks to her in Yiddish and thinks of an ingenious way to connect Gittel to Mendel.

Newman said the story is based on two real-life experiences she heard about — from her godmother’s mother, Sadie Gringrass, and her maternal grandmother, Ruth Levin — that “are embedded in my bones…. I was nurtured by them just as surely as I was nurtured by the matzo ball soup my family ate on Jewish holidays…. I fused these two stories together in my mind, as I wanted to show how brave the children were who came here alone (many children traveled unaccompanied).”

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