Okay, I’m going to admit to you that I was teary at the end of this one. It ends well, but the story is quite touching. Rifka and her family flee their home in the Ukraine under the cover of night. Her brother has deserted the army and they all fear for their lives. They journey to Poland and from there plan on taking a boat to America. However, Rifka has contracted ringworm and the shipping company will not let her sail. Her family leaves her behind and she must make her own way.
Despite being fairly familiar with the flight of Jews from Russia, I did not know anything about the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a group that aids Rifka once her parents are gone. With their help she has a place to stay in Belgium and treatment for her ringworm.
This book is a fourth or fifth grade reading level, although it could be mastered by very strong third grade readers, particularly those with some knowledge of Jewish culture. While there is death and violence, it is written about in an age appropriate way.
This immigration story is clear about why they leave Russia and has a great deal of detail about the trip to the United States, but like Dragon’s Child, it ends upon admittance to the United States.
There are some vocabulary words that may be difficult for those unfamiliar with Judiasm:
tallis – a Jewish prayer shawl
mitzvah – In the book, Rifka is using mitzvah to refer to her brothers becoming bar mitzvot. This means that they have reached adulthood according to Jewish law. This takes place at age 13.
davening – praying
pogrom – these were violent attacks by non-Jews on Jewish communities (source).
Great for: Teachers, if you’re doing Molly’s Pilgrim with one of your reading groups, this would be a possibility for one of your highest groups. It might be valuable to compare the small amount of information we get about why Molly left Russia with the incredible detail we have about Rivka. Students can also use their knowledge of Molly’s Pilgrim to help students reading Letters from Rivka to understand what life might be life for Rivka in America.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Rifka and her family are forced to strip to for inspection at the Polish border. The doctors spends perhaps too long examining Rifka’s mother. At age thirteen Rifka is kissed by a seventeen year old boy.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – Rifka knows that if her brother is caught as a Jewish deserter from the Russian army he will be killed as an example to others. Her father is whipped for disobedience. Rifka is told she will be killed if she returns to her home in Russia. Soldier shot and killed her uncle. Rifka recalls pogroms when peasants burned their shops and came to murder Jewish people. A sailor that Rifka knows is lost overboard in a storm.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A doctor smells of schnapps.
Frightening or Intense Things –Rifka contracts typhus and the person who examines her says she is likely to die. In her nightmares she claws herself until she bleeds. Other typhus sufferers die. The ship is in a storm. Rifka is detained at Ellis Island. Rifka cares for a sick baby there and the baby also dies.