Rebecca and Ana

Published in 2009; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrators Robert Hunt and Susan McAliley


It's now early November. Rebecca's cousins (nine-year-old Ana, thirteen-year-old Michael, and fifteen-year-old Josef) and Aunt Fanya and Uncle Jacob are arriving at Ellis Island. Rebecca can hardly contain her excitement. She's also nervous that Ana might still be sick and won't be allowed to enter the country. So she's very relieved to see her father with her aunt and uncle and Ana beside them. Michael's there too, but not Josef. He hurt his leg and the immigration officials need to inspect him before they'll let him come. His parents are terrified that they'll be separated, but Rebecca's father reassures them that he'll take with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to make sure everything works out.

They take their Russian family home, and everyone gets cleaned and dressed in new clothes. Rebecca happily gives Ana some clothes from the twins, so the two girls can match. Despite the worry about Josef lingering in the backs of their minds, everyone settles in to show and learn American customs. Because Ana and Michael already know a decent amount of English, they're able to go right into their proper grades at school. Ana's in Rebecca's class, and Rebecca tries to help her cousin learn the ropes. But there are a lot of things Ana isn't used to, and when Rebecca tries to furtively explain something in Yiddish, she gets punished for not speaking English. Still, the cousins make it through the school day. When it's done, they head to a shopping district to buy sheet music for the ten-year-old song "You're a Grand Old Flag." Their teacher is going to hold auditions to select one student to sing a patriotic song for an assembly celebrating the new 48-star American flag, and Rebecca wants to win. Ana watches Rebecca haggle with the seller, and catches on quickly. Rebecca has enough money left to buy a banana for each girl, a food Ana's never had, and Ana negotiates getting four bananas for the same price. 

At school the next week, Rebecca is one of four students to audition a song (the other students will all recite poems) and earns the solo. Almost immediately after, the teacher decides that asking Ana to memorize a poem is too much for a new immigrant, and so declares the song will be a duet. Because songs aren't poems set to music, I guess. But Ana doesn't know the song, doesn't understand the meaning of some of the words, and her accent prevents her from properly pronouncing some of them! Rebecca is angry at the teacher for putting her in this position, especially when some other students warn Rebecca that she better make sure Ana doesn't screw things up, or the whole school will laugh at them. Rebecca's worries quickly shift when she and Ana are practicing the song, and Michael interrupts to tell them that Josef's injured leg is now infected and there's a chance he'll lose it (no antibiotics back then). If his leg has to be amputated, he'll be sent back to Russia. None of his family can afford to go back with him (the ship will pay only his fare, and Jacob has only just now found a low-paying job), so it's likely that he'd die there. The book doesn't point that out, but with a war going on and the way Russia treated Jews it's not a huge leap of logic. Michael's going to have to quit school to work, and the family is moving into a small tenement building. 

Even with all this going on, when she's at school and faced with the song issue, Rebecca can't help but worry about that too. She hates seeing her classmates mock her cousin. Rebecca asks Rose, a classmate who immigrated a while ago, for help, and realizes that the worst that will happen is she'll be embarrassed, but that will pass. Rose encourages Rebecca to put herself in Ana's position, and Rebecca is able to focus on how hard her cousin's trying and all she's been through. A few slip-ups on a song don't really matter. But it's too late, because Ana overheard Rebecca talking with another student and thinks no one wants her to sing. Rebecca's able to convince her in time for the assembly, though. The girls sing their song in matching outfits, and as they reach the end, Ana pulls out a little American flag she was given at immigration and waves it. Rebecca has her aunt's, and does the same. The audience claps and cheers, and over the noise Rebecca asks Ana what prompted her to pull out the flag. Ana says she's feeling patriotic and points the audience: her brother Josef is there!

Looking Back

Since many immigrants had little money and came from countries that (at the time, at least) didn't have public education, the children had often never been to school before arriving in the United States. They were happy for the opportunity, and so were their parents. Students would usually spend some time in a special class to learn English, and then a few months later be matriculated into the mainstream classrooms (learning English was a point of pride, and many immigrants considered it shameful to speak their native tongues). There, all students had hygiene checks every morning. With as many as fifty students to a classroom, illness could spread quickly! There were no gym classes or recess, but students did stationary exercises at their desks and sometimes teachers would have classes outside for some fresh air. In a crowded city like New York, that could mean class on the school roof. Teachers were stricter than they often are today, sometimes employing corporal punishment or shaming in the form of dunce caps. But they were revered by immigrant families, as teachers were the ones who educated their children and opened so many doors to new opportunities in the new world.

While the law required children to stay in school until age 14, poorer families often had to pull their children out to work (like Nellie in the Samantha books) or watch younger children while the parents worked. These families usually lived in crowded tenements, dilapidated and tiny apartments, miserable places to try to raise a family. While Rebecca's apartment--a converted row house--could get crowded, it was at least comfortable. Education was especially desirable for these needy children, for without an education, they would likely stay in poverty.


This book is dedicated to "my great-grandparents, Max and Yetta Webber, who bravely left Dvinsk, Russia, to make a new life in America."

Rebecca's father is named Louis.

Rebecca has a set of Russian nesting dolls, seven altogether, and she named the second smallest one Beckie. Sometimes she carries it for good luck.


Alycia said...

Great review! My favorite book of all time is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so I really like the Rebecca books.

Also, did you know that corporal punishment in schools is still legal in 19 states in the US right now? I was shocked when I learned that a few years ago. Even states like Colorado still allow it. Crazy!

SJSiff said...


I didn't know that corporal punishment was still allowed in so many states. Geez, Colorado, loosen up (coming from the other state to have legalized recreational marijuana--no I haven't tried it nor do I desire to).