Skip to main content

The Singing Fire


The Singing Fire

Once upon a time, about one hundred years ago, a young Jewish girl
defied her family and ran away from her Polish homeland to London.
"Nehama secretly bought the ticket … she didn't consider
everything she was leaving until she stood on the boat, looking
back at the docks, where no one waved good-bye. And in the blink of
an eye, the Vistula River, queen of Poland … became the

She knew no English nor did she know a single person. "She was
sitting on the step of a shop … she had her bag by her feet
on the wet ground … [she] was seventeen years old and alone,
so she prayed … 'help me please.'" Out of the fog a man
answered. "'Hello there! Can I help you?' the man asked in
Yiddish." She was weary but not yet wary. "I'm just not sure which
way to go," she said.

"Anyone can see that you're a newcomer, so how could you know?
That's why I am here. I'm from the Newcomer's Assistance Committee.
My name is Mr. Blink. Do you have any family waiting for you? A
friend?" She tells him she is alone, that she is from Plotsk and
that her name is Nehama Korzen. "Such a coincidence … he
beamed. I'm a Plotsker myself … [and] a landsman is as
good as relations, right? You just come with me. First thing we'll
go to the city office to pay the entrance fee." But no matter how
little the "fee" might be she doesn't have enough money. "A Jew
doesn't give up a landsman to the authorities … please
don't do that … [and] I can't go home." He tells her he will
help her slip past a "policeman" and see what he can do about a job
for her.

She accompanies him to his house, has supper at his table where she
watches his business transactions and sleeps in the kitchen on a
cot. In the morning, she is given smelly porridge by the
housekeeper and awaits Mr. Blink's entrance. "Good morning, Mr.
Blink … have you arranged for my papers already?" He is
furious with her and wants to know why she isn't hiding. He points
to the man standing in the room with them … "this man here is
a police officer. You'll have to go with him, and I'll do my best
for you from this side … I'm sorry, my dear. Very

The streets were crowded with shops, hansom cabs, barrows, pavement
peddlers, carts and people of every size buying, pushing and
bargaining. Noise and music created a cacophony of sounds …
"and Nehama couldn't hear her own thoughts [which] was just as
well, all her thoughts were grim." When she tried to tell the
policeman that Mr. Blink would help her, he said, "You sound like
all them other girls of his … foreigners every one." She is
taken to London Hospital, where she is met by "women hooded in
white like the sultan's harem … this is how we stop venereal
infection from spreading … [you are here for a] firsthand
look." Horror, shock, embarrassment and a broken, sobbing Nehama
"didn't resist [anymore] as she stepped up into the police wagon to
take her to prison." Since she was a "protégé" of Mr.
Blink, the authorities assumed she was a prostitute and treated her
in the most demeaning way.

But that experience is only the beginning of Nehama's "education."
Her initial flight to independence and personal freedom takes her
to the dark side of humanity and she is soon forced into
prostitution. But with her dead grandmother's "whispers" in her
ear, she endures until she manages to crawl her way to "Frying Pan
Alley" in the better part of the city's East End.

In 1886 Emilia leaves Minsk to make her way in the wide world and
travel to London. Like Nehama, she is greeted by a man who sets his
sights on her for his stable. But despite her misgivings, Nehama
steps forward to offer the girl what help she can. She knows what
her fall from grace did to her and she will try to help this
"innocent" Jewess. As it turns out, Emilia is pregnant. She gives
birth to a daughter, Gittel. But after her baby is born, Emilia
refuses to settle for a hard life as a single mother on the
streets. She wants protection and security in a city that seems to
offer no mercy to poor young women. She leaves her little girl with
Nehema, and in order to transform herself into someone who is able
to navigate the upper class she also sheds her Jewish heritage. She
needs to escape London's Jewish ghetto, the shtetle.

As time passes, the girls adjust to their respective situations and
move on with their lives. They marry and settle down. Gittel is a
life force that propels Nehama to work her fingers to the bone to
see that she has a better life. She is a lovely child and forms the
nexus between Nehama and Emilia. Eleven years pass and Nehama has
dreams for her daughter. While she and her husband, Nathan, slave
in the confines of their sewing workshop, Nehama dreams of a
different future for her daughter: "She'd become a pupil-teacher
and then a teacher and she'd live like a human being." The kind of
strength Nehama found to save herself from the streets never pales.
With every tragedy that befalls her or her family or her friends
and neighbors, she straightens her back and faces it head on.

Lilian Nattel is a brilliant storyteller. She says the idea for
SINGING FIRE came about after she gave birth to a little girl and
adopted another. "I thought about all the different ways people can
take on mothering roles and I was especially interested in the
relationship between adoptive mothers and birth-mothers. Everything
I've read focuses on the birth-mother's feelings about her child,
or the adult-child searching for her origins. There was nothing at
all to express the voice of the adoptive mother or to explore the
complex connection between her and the birth-mother, though these
two women share the most intimate of bonds between mother and

And she goes on to say, "Immigrant experience is usually portrayed
as either a kind of rags-to-riches fairy-tale or as the gritty
'reality' of downtrodden women and grasping men, but I've seen for
myself how it can be a rich amalgam of old and new that allows for
growth as well as struggle. How did that vitality show itself when
the majority of our ancestors immigrated at the
turn-of-the-century? My family came to the new world through
London. [Thus] I found myself telling … my grandmothers'
story, imagining the heroism of the women who made a new life in a
new country while my own experience of motherhood brought to the
novel an examination of the unbreakable bonds between mothers and
sisters, whether those relationships are formed by birth, by
adoption, or by friendship."

Nattel brings to life a chapter in history that has not been much
explored. "This was the high road of the ghetto, the one square
mile where Yiddish was spoken, the irritating pimple on the
backside of London, the subject of parliamentary debate, the
hundred thousand newcomers among the millions, ready to take fog as
their mother's milk here in the East End, where all the noisy,
dirty, and stinking industries were exiled from the city." She
captures the very essence of the place, the time and the
painful/joyful journey her characters are committed to as they
search for their Jewish identity. If ever a book was written from
the heart, SINGING FIRE is it.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 23, 2011

The Singing Fire
by Lilian Nattel

  • Publication Date: February 3, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743249666
  • ISBN-13: 9780743249669