The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
Susan Jane Gilman
Grand Central Publishing
June 10th, 2014

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman is a very enjoyable and insightful book. Spanning over seventy years, from the early 1900s to the late 1980s this novel encompasses many side stories. Yet the author does this by intertwining the rise of a woman ice cream mogul with an immigrant’s story, the twentieth century American Jewish desire to assimilate, women’s rights issues, poverty, world wars, McCarthyism, the youth movement of the sixties, Reagan’s trickle-down economics, and the overreach of government.

The plot is a page-turner and very informative from the beginning. Trying to escape the Pogroms young Malka’s parents immigrate to New York City. After being crippled by an ice cream cart she is abandoned by her own family, but manages to survive after being taken in by the family who caused the accident. Through her wit and cunningness she learns the secrets of the trade from her rescuers, an Italian family. After falling in love and eventually marrying a handsome, dyslexic Jewish man, Albert, she transforms herself from a crippled dependent girl to Lillian Dunkle, the ice cream queen tycoon.

Readers are able to get a glimpse of the historical issues, many times with humor and wit. During the scenes when Malka is with the Italian family the author skillfully shows the similarities and differences between the Jewish and Italian immigrants. Other scenes show that even during earlier decades government bureaucracy was at its worst. Through Lillian’s eyes the author points out, “Oh the rigmorale she had to go through. Tax returns and even a psychological evaluation. What will they ask for next? A blood sample? Today, if one of our franchises wants to hire a sixteen-year-old to scoop ice cream for a summer, the management is required to provide more information than my entire family was asked to supply at Ellis Island.”

Lillian is a complex character with two sides. At times readers will root for and really like her while at other times she will be seen as despicable and amoral. She can be driven, bitter, and rude while also being bold, loyal, and highly intelligent. This two-sided personality allows for the reader to see that someone, especially a businesswoman, has to develop a thick side but can also be seen as a motherly figure. She was both compelling and sympathetic.

Incredibly Gilman is able to weave together American history, the Jewish experience, and ice cream. Throughout the book there are Yiddish terms used by the characters to convey their emotions. With New York City looming in the background, the reader will learn everything about the ice cream business and how it was affected by important issues of the day, including the threat of new franchises like McDonald’s that incorporated ice cream in their menu choices.

Anyone that wants a captivating story with a lot of humor, sensitivity, and Jewish wit should read The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Readers will be taken on a journey through the decades with Lillian Dunkle, the celebrated matriarch of the ice cream business, as she recounts her life from penniless immigrant to food tycoon.

Elise Cooper