Tradition and defiance war in culturally insightful novel

The Sisters Weiss, by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardback $24.99.

This bestselling novelist has carved an intricate tale out of the lives of two sisters, at one time inseparable, but later living in separate and incompatible worlds. Rose and Pearl Weiss are born into a caring, rule-bound ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn family. Rose, the older by three years, has the kind of curiosity that is dangerous in this kind of community – dangerous because it cannot be satisfied without stepping out of the cocoon and risking ostracism.  SistersWeiss

Befriended by a girl whose French immigrant family is at the margins of acceptance by this community, Rose finds herself captivated by art photography found in a book in the girl’s father’s library. She is allowed to borrow the book, which she knows she must hide. However, she soon aspires to becoming a photographer – which clearly means she aspires to seeing things in her own way. In several seemingly inevitable steps, Rose finds herself at odds with all that has been built to comfort and protect her. At seventeen, she runs away from an arranged marriage, disgracing her family and cutting herself off from the only world she has known. 

Slowly but steadily, she builds a new life, eventually establishing herself as a prominent photographic artist. To her family and community, she is an object of scorn and a source of shame.  Pearl is left to be the model daughter, her behavior fitting the mold of her community. The family scandal severely narrowed Pearl’s matrimonial choices, but she has made the best of her situation.

Forty years after Rose’s self-exile, her daughter Hannah, a fledgling graduate school student, receives a barely literate note from a teenager named Rivka. Rivka is Pearl’s daughter, and she is desperate to escape from a future that affords no hope for her individual happiness or growth. Rivka is seeking temporary shelter with cousin Hannah. Weiss family history seems to be repeating itself. When Hannah reveals the note to her mother, Rose warns her not to get involved. No good can come of it. But then Rivka simply shows up!

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Somewhat reluctantly, Hannah offers her temporary shelter. She is impressed by Rivka’s gratitude and how she gives the apartment a thorough cleaning without being asked. Still, Rivka acts like an immigrant. It’s as if the community she left behind is a foreign country. She is unprepared for the new world.

Hannah asks her friend Simon to tutor Hannah toward a GED, but before long that relationship becomes a torrid romance. Hannah’s hidden feelings about Simon are wounded by his succumbing to Rivka’s advances. She feels that Rivka betrayed her, though Rivka had no knowledge of Hannah’s supposed claim on Simon.

Rivka disappears and reappears a couple of times in response to the stresses and strains of her situation.

Before long, the inevitable happens. Imagining what Pearl and her husband must have been going through since Rivka’s disappearance, imagining what her own parents had gone through forty years earlier, Rose works to negotiate some kind of communication, if only so that Rivka’s  parents can stop worrying and know that their child is okay.

 A guarded, fragile rapprochement is set in motion, the distance between the sisters’ lives narrowing and widening as attempts to heal keep running into the decades’ old habits of intolerance and animosity.

Ms. Ragen’s skill at crafting all the emotional nuances of this tentatively wished-for reunification between the sisters, and between child and parents, is convincing and suspenseful. Readers are reminded of the need people have to stand their ground, the ground of values and ingrained behaviors, and how understanding and compassion are always crippled by the need to be the party that is uniquely in the right.

To learn how and to what extent these issues and conflicts are resolved, how Rivka survives the risks she has taken, requires, dear reader, that you take your own journey into this powerful, wise book. I think you will find The Sisters Weiss very much worth your while. You will discover a provocative study of how identity is formed and reformed. You will witness the tug of war between nature and nurture, between loyalty to self and to others, and between sophistry and sincerity. This is a most thoughtful and passionate entertainment.

This review appears in the November 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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