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Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution

By Lawrence Bush

May 2007

ISBN-13  978-0-9789980-3-5
ISBN      0-9789980-3-0

"The most important thing in my life has been the revolutionary movement, even since I was a young child without understanding. I must have been born that way, feeling that I was with the downtrodden. . . ."

At the tender age of twelve, Bessie is exiled to Siberia because of her brothers' anti-czarist activities. At twenty-five, she loses her husband and baby girl to the ravages of civil war in revolutionary Russia. At forty, she faces down Nazi hoodlums as she tries to disrupt a pro-Hitler rally in Madison Square Garden. At fifty-five, she is driven to an underground life by McCarthyite persecution and rejection by her own son. At sixty-two, she squares off against racists during civil rights campaigns in the South--and nearly loses the loyalty of her beloved daughter.

At eighty-eight, Bessie is still making trouble and still making jokes. Bessie is more than a survivor--she's a winner, for her spirits are never dampened, her humor never fails, and her faith in human love and potential is never shaken, however long it might take for her dreams of a better world to become real.

Bessie is a profoundly optimistic novel about a woman who is a leader in a generation of fighters and poets. An enchanting novel from an engaging, talented writer, it is a masterful achievement of passion, grace and wit, echoing with the honest, earthy voice of the heroine--a rebel, a lover, a mother, a grandmother, a nurse, a Jew, an extraordinary human being.

Lawrence Bush has been a creative force in the American Jewish community as an author, essayist, visual artist and magazine editor for nearly three decades. He edits Jewish Currents, a 61-year old magazine now published by the Workmen's Circle, for which he conducts a “Religion and Skepticism” column.

Bush was a speechwriter for a dozen years for Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, the late leader of Reform Judaism in America, and also served for thirteen years as the founding editor of the magazine of the Reconstructionist movement, Reconstructionism Today. Bush’s newest book, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, explores the generational factors that led baby-boomers down the path of spirituality. His 1983 historical novel, Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution, has also just been reissued in paperback by Ben Yehuda Press.

Bush was the editor and commentator on the millennium edition of Leo Rosten’s classic The Joys of Yiddish. His other books include American Torah Toons: 54 Illustrated Commentaries, Jews, Money and Social Responsibility (with Jeffrey Dekro), and two fictions for adolescents, Rooftop Secrets and Emma Ansky-Levine and Her Mitzvah Machine. His essays, fiction and artwork have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, MAD magazine, Tikkun, Reform Judaism, and other publications, and his writings have been anthologized in Best Jewish Writing 2003; Hallucinogens: A Reader; The 54th Century; and A Mentsh Among Men.


"The most important thing in my life has been the revolutionary movement, even since I was a young child without understanding. I must have been born that way, feeling that I was with the downtrodden. . . ."


"How many beatings can this little stinker take and still be alive? Let me tell you something—I wonder myself."


"History is not made like you make a cup of coffee. They say that a Jewish man prayed to God. He said, 'Lord, to you a thousand years is just a minute, and a million dollars is like a penny. So please, God, give me a penny?'

"And God said, 'Wait a minute.' "


Hadassah Magazine
"A marvelous story about an amazing woman. It will grip you from beginning to end."

The Voice Literary Supplement
"Flashing from tragedy to joke to political moral . . . a tour de force, a loving recreation of the voice of a generation, complete with its idealism."."

The Detroit Jewish News
"A book that contains both the essence of a vital part of Jewish life in our time and a story of simple but authentic fictional art."

The Nation
"[A] remarkable first novel."

The New York Times:
"Lawrence Bush has written a novel about a Jewish grandmother quite different from those we usually get to read about. Bessie, inspired by his own grandmother, was a leftist, a one-time fervent Communist albeit with an independent mind that often kept her from toing the party line.

"Bessie spent her youth in her native Russia, where her brothers recruited her to the cause which eventually brought her to Siberian imprisonment. When she escaped, she came to New York and paced the immigrant treadmill, working in a factory, attending night school, meeting a young man. When the Bolshevik Revolution erupted, she and her husband sailed to Russia to join it. Her husband died and she once again fled, this time before the onslaught by the Whites, and returned to New York.

"This is an episodic story, taking Bessie through Bund rallies at Madison Square Garden, through strikes,through Vietnam demonstrations and into an old age in the Bronx,where her politics have mellowed into an acceptance of Israel and a sense of identification with the Jewish people. It is an interesting story because it is mirrored in the lives of many who went the same rougte and, without shifting their moral positions onradical issues of the day, often that the world had changed. Bessie was a realist, but this in no way conflicted with her idealism.

"Mr. Bush has written "Bessie" with love and grace. He has placed his protagonist at all the scenes that counted in the lives of such activists and yet he has fashioned a life of small incident for her as well. He has kept Bessie very much an individual and a warm human being. It is a part of the American story that is rarely recounted."

The Nation:

"I'm prejudiced because I know Bessie. Not personally, but as a type. If you live in a city with an aging Jewish population steeped in left traditions, you have probably seen her in action. Now in her 70s or 80s, talking with a Yiddish accent, almost deaf and troubled with various physical ailments, she can still be found on picket lines, in peace demonstrations and at secular Jewish cultural events. She emigrated from Eastern Europe long ago, but vivid memories of fear and privation remain, flavored with a certain nostalgia for a milieu that has vanished completely. She worked in the garment shops, a gutsy, outspoken young woman. She became a radical and stayed a radical despite repression, disillusionment and apathetic (or politically erratic) children and grandchildren. She will carry on to the end.

"In the left's literature about heroic militants, avant-garde women and proletarian misery, she is, strangely, hardly to be found. Save for a few brief moments like the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-10, she has been a face in the immigrant crowd, steady but unglamorous. Not even the American Yiddish novelists had much use for her except as girlfriend and mother. Perhaps the reform socialists began the mocking that has steadily pursued her: when organized blocks of young women in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union challenged the New York leadership in 1911, they were offered suggestions on how they could "get it out of their systems." From then on, her radicalism was made to seem the product of an overaggressive personality. Her image merged into the generic Jewish mother and grandmother, favorite target of wisecracking novelists like Philip Roth. Heart and soul of the left, she has never been taken seriously.

"Now elderly and in her last struggles for dignity in old age, for world peace, against Menachem Begin—she may get her vindication, from the generation of her grandchildren. Meredith Tax's Rivington Street has been a literary turning point here. The subject is, after all, a natural. Not only were the rebel girls protofeminists, pioneers of birth control and their own sexual emancipation, they proved that women of moral strength could live their lives unbroken by the male-dominated values that persisted even in their intimate political and personal circles.

"Bessie, the remarkable first novel that Lawrence Bush has loosely based on his grandmother's life, successfully places the type in time and space, with little of the sentimentalism one would expect and without the cardboard characterizations into which Rivington Street sometimes retreats. Born in Russia, Bessie grows up with a ferocious sense of in­dependence, joins her brothers in anti-czarist conspiracy and flees to Amer­ica. Settling on New York City's Lower East Side, she becomes a garment worker and escapes the 1911 Triangle Fire only because she had just quit the job. She marries Yasha, a footloose Wobbly, becomes a nurse and, with him, returns to Russia to help the Revolution. There she loses a child and a husband, and her youthful romanticism as well.

"That's the first section. The second section is shorter, more condensed, like the middle-years memories of the old. Bessie remains for decades in the Communist Party, supports the unions, suffers when her children shrug off her idealism and when the party swoops and swerves to the changing Soviet line. Bush captures especially bitter moments from the 1950s, when Bessie's daughter and shopkeeper son-in-law flee a changing neighborhood. Bessie unwit­tingly precipitates a family explosion that must have been heard in a thousand left-wing homes. "I am sick to death of having every step I want to take be measured by you to see if I'm in step with the masses!" her daughter snaps. "When did I ever receive any guidance from you about my future except that I should have the correct political line about things that I don't even really give a good goddamn about!"

"The strength of the novel shows itself as Bessie grows old—in moments of physical humiliation as she struggles to take off a girdle, of emotional humiliation at the fierce disappointments handed out by life. Bessie absorbs the pain, not with false heroism—politics, we are meant to see, does become an answer for her unresolved personal problems—but realistically. I can see her in my mind's eye as she speaks to her grandson with the tape recorder:

You want to see how America works? . . . The man looks at the woman until her eyes fall. The young stare at the old until their eyes fall. The rich look at the poor, same thing. Whoever got to look down or walk so they always got their eyes on the ground, or those that they take drugs so they can always have their eyes closed—these are the ones that they need the revolution most. Everybody know this . . . .

Socialism means you can walk on the street and feel good about what you see in the windows, on the signs, in the other people's faces. And you can look everybody in the eye.



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