Bridge to America

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Bridge to America book coverWhat the Book is About:

Spunky nine year-old Fivel lives with his mother, sisters, and brother in Vilkomerski, Poland in the early 1900's. Threatened by Cossacks, starvation, and freezing temperatures, the family is barely surviving, even with the help of kindhearted Beryl the baker. It seems like a miracle when Fivel's long absent father finally sends them passage money to join him in America. As a Jewish immigrant boy in Duluth, Minnesota, Fivel (now Phil) struggles to fit in with the local kids without losing his identity.

Based on the real life childhood story of Phil Myzel, Bridge to America is a fast-paced, exciting read that brings the Jewish immigrant experience of this period in history to life.

Jewish Content and Values

  • Shtetl (a small village in Eastern Europe where a large numbers of Jews lived): Fivel lives in a Polish shtetl, speaks Yiddish (a European language that combines elements of Hebrew and old German), attends heder (Jewish school), and celebrates Jewish holidays like Shabbat and Passover. There are many Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout the book, which are defined in an extensive glossary.
  • Chesed (kindness): A major theme of the story is chesed, as Fivel’s family could not have survived without the kindness of the community.
  • Love the stranger, because you were once strangers in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10-19): When Pekka (a new immigrant boy from Finland) arrives at Fivel’s school in Duluth, Fivel is glad that the boys in his class stop bullying him and start bullying Pekka instead. Later, Fivel realizes that it’s important to help Pekka adjust because he knows how it feels to be an immigrant.

Positive Role Models

Nearly all of the adults in Fivel’s life worked hard to protect him, including his mother, father, sisters, and even his new schoolteacher in Duluth, but some of the story’s characters go above and beyond in their kindness and generosity to young Fivel.

  • Beryl the Baker is a real mensch (good person); he has no wife or children and treats Fivel like a son. He always welcomes him with a smile and some fresh bread, and he laughs at Fivel’s mischievous tales. On Fridays, all the Jewish families bring their Shabbat food to Beryl’s oven to keep it warm for the next day. Beryl surreptitiously adds some chicken and vegetables to each pot so that every family can have a hearty meal once a week.
  • The Shoemaker is a kind man who makes Fivel boots to replace the wood and rags Fivel wears as shoes in the winter. Fivel loves the boots so much he even wears them to sleep!

Content Advisory

This story takes place in Poland during a time when hired Cossacks rode freely across the country. During a Cossack invasion of their town, Fivel's brother Benyomin is almost trampled and a neighbor family is killed. After the attack, the boys in the neighborhood loot the body of a dead Cossack for warm clothes and boots. Fivel's sister is beaten for stealing a piece of bread while working as a maid and Fivel and his brother are almost thrown into the sea by some sailors during their passage to America. None of these episodes are graphically described, however the suspense might be tense for some children.

Talk it Over

  • When Fivel arrives in Duluth, he is teased because he doesn’t understand English. He remembers how he used to play tricks on Yusig, his neighbor. Somehow the jokes aren’t as funny when Fivel becomes the target.
  • Have you ever played a prank on someone? Have you ever been the target of a prank? How can you tell the difference between a funny joke and something that might hurt someone’s feelings?

More For You

Philip “Fivel” Myzel was born in Vilna, Poland in 1912 and died in Lakeshore, Minnesota in 2008. Like Fivel, his fictional counterpart, Philip immigrated to America in 1919 with his mother, brother, and sisters. He was remembered by his friends as a generous man, the “life of the party,” and a proud congregant at Temple Israel, where he sang in the choir and blew the shofar (ram’s horn) for 63 years.

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