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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for The Free Thinkers
Book cover for The Free Thinkers

Layle Silbert's stories trace struggles and joys of lives overlooked. In The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas, she gives these lost lives a new voice, recovering in exacting detail the world of newly arrived Eastern European Jews in turn-of-the-century America. Silbert's stories chronicle their arrival in Chicago and New York, and follow them as they trade Yiddish and Russian for English, find work in factories and Jewish newspapers, attend Zionist meetings, and struggle toward the promise of freedom and happiness.

The Free Thinkers tells two tales. The first novella focuses on Ida, an independent woman, a "freethinker" devoted to finding her own way in America. A factory forelady, a patron of the theater, and an instinctive feminist, she is determined to find total freedom in a man's world—no matter where it leads her.

The collection's other novella chronicles the lives of three sisters from the Ukraine as they find husbands and start their own families in America. Two masterful chapters at the heart of the novella describe their mother's arrival, after the great war and the revolution, to a small Indiana town. She is "a vision, in her clothes, her posture, the very air around her, a vision of a sight on a street in the village they'd all come from, suddenly seamlessly transported into this pleasant spring morning to the very middle of America."

In Layle Silbert's tender work, as in the best stories of Chekhov, the slightest gesture carries with it the weight of the world. Nothing happens, everything happens. Silbert's writing is delicate, as if dusted by the wings of a visiting angel, here to present for posterity the way things were.

Book cover for The Free Thinkers
Book cover for The Free Thinkers

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“Both novellas, sliding from laughter to warmhearted sentiment as they pass deftly through different character's minds and voices, show Silbert's easy mastery of the Yiddish-American storytelling tradition.”

“Throughout, Silbert captures in sepia tones urban street scenes and ethnic parlors, and deftly uncovers the emotional landscape underneath. Taken together, these narratives constitute a revealing portrayal of the American immigrant experience.”

“In [Silbert's] writing, the maverick camera of her pen zigzags into unexplored wrinkles of lives.”

“I can't think of anything in recent years that has so evoked the Old Country in this country. The Free Thinkers is a very rich book. I loved it.”

“[Silbert] is plain deep. She's unsentimental, touching, brave.”

Layle Silbert

Born in 1913 in a Yiddish-speaking household in Chicago, Layle Silbert attended the University of Chicago and pursued a career in social work before before turning, later in life, to photography and fiction. By the 1960s Silbert had moved to New York City, where she was involved in both literary and radical feminist circles. Her acclaimed photographs, primarily of contemporary writers such as Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Bishop, were exhibited more than thirty times in the United States and internationally. All the while Silbert was writing in a variety of forms, including poems and a handful of personal essays, but she primarily considered herself a writer of short fiction. Her stories were published in the New York Quarterly, Literary Review, and Salmagundi, among others. The collection of stories included in Yudl, published by Seven Stories, was selected by the author for publication in the last days before her death. Silbert died in 2003.