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‘Hands of Gold’: A story resonating with Jewish families in the US – review

It was her grandfather’s autobiography that provided the basis for her novel Hands of Gold, to which she gives the subtitle One Man’s Quest to Find the Silver Lining in Misfortune.

The novel Hands of Gold: One Man’s Quest to Find the Silver Lining in Misfortune features a story that will resonate with many a Jewish family that has its origins in immigrants to America in the early years of the 20th century – not least because author Roni Robbins bases it on her own family history.

Robbins had been a widely published journalist for 10 years when some audio cassettes, recorded by her grandfather, came into her possession. In them, he recounted his life story, right from his childhood in pre-WW I Europe. “I started transcribing them and turning them into the novel more than 20 years ago,” she says.

“I didn’t decide to be an author,” she says, “until I started transcribing my grandfather’s cassette tapes and realized I had a story that was much longer than any article I had written for traditional media.”

So it was her grandfather’s autobiography that provided the basis for her novel Hands of Gold, to which she gives the subtitle One Man’s Quest to Find the Silver Lining in Misfortune. And, indeed, Robbins gives us a life replete with problems, difficulties, and struggles. How much of it is drawn from her grandfather’s real life story we can only speculate. But, as the subtitle indicates, her story is full of her hero’s capacity to absorb setbacks as they occur and rise above them.

Absorbing setbacks and rising above them

In fashioning her novel, Robbins uses the device of her hero Sam (once Shimshon) Fox making an audio recording of his life story at the age of 86, just like her grandfather. The result, a narrative recounted in a direct, personal way, makes for a story replete with real-life characters and memorable incidents that ring true.

Shimshon’s story starts in Hungary in the early years of the 20th century. We follow his efforts to escape from post-WW I Europe and how finally, in 1925, he sails to the New World. His adventures as an immigrant, in his latter years stricken and nearly killed by tuberculosis, conclude shortly after the death of his wife toward the end of the 20th century.

Sam (Shimshon) was born in 1905 in a village called Jacovo in that area of Eastern Europe that was forever being transferred from one sovereign state to another. When his father married his deceased wife’s sister, Sam found himself in the middle of a family of 13 siblings.

His farmer father dies before Sam’s bar mitzvah, and Sam wants to be more than a farmer. He spends some time as an apprentice cobbler, after which he runs a milk distribution business, but he dreams of escaping to America.

Before he manages to get on board a ship, a key incident in his life occurs. He visits his 90-year-old grandmother, who gives him her treasured gold watch as a parting gift. Sam, unmoved by sentiment, swaps it with a friend for a newer, shinier watch – something he regrets bitterly later in life. Toward the end of his story, his grandmother’s watch, lost and buried during the Holocaust, by a sort of miracle finds its way back to him – part of the silver lining that lightens his difficult life.

Along the way, Sam indeed reaches the New World, albeit Canada in the first instance, but later the goldene medina [“the golden country”] itself, though he discovers that the streets are far from paved with gold. He does find the love of his life in Hannah Stein, who sticks by him through thick and thin, but they spend much of their married life staving off borderline poverty.

When Sam concludes his taped account, exactly one year after the death of his beloved Hannah, we realize that he has spent much of his life evading potentially disastrous problems – running from military service, changing identities, illegally crossing borders, avoiding the police while living without papers, and fighting the effects of a life-threatening illness.

But he makes it. He is close to 90, has survived for years with only one lung that is itself damaged, has nursed his beloved wife through her final illness, and against the odds has recovered his grandmother’s precious gift to him. In the final analysis, his “quest to find the silver lining in misfortune” has not failed.

In 2023, Hands of Gold deservedly won an International Book Award for multicultural fiction. This is a book to enjoy.

  • Hands of Gold: One Man’s Quest to Find the Silver Lining in Misfortune
  • Roni Robbins
  • Amsterdam Publishers, 2022
  • 262 pages; $16

1 thought on “‘Hands of Gold’: A story resonating with Jewish families in the US – review”

  1. Pingback: Roni Robbins’ New York story | David Wrote This

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