Tag Archives: Jewish family life

“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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Florida, families, and fruit trees anchor a dazzling fiction set in the early 1960s

Goldens Are Here, by Andrew Furman. Green Writers Press. 364 pages. Trade paperback $21.95.

There are so many strands and points of interest in this fine, highly original novel that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the blooming (technically and economically) of Florida’s Space Coast, and the Civil Rights struggle. In the foreground is the Florida citrus industry in the early 1960s as represented by a body of small grove owners along or near the Indian River.  

In these communities, the white folks own the groves and the black folks perform much of the labor. Race relations are in an uneasy truce, a tangle of old habits and shaky dependencies. A great freeze threatens to destroy the groves, even if insects don’t.

The central character, Isaac Golden, has abandoned his career as a physician and set out on a grand adventure with his wife Melody and their two young children – Sarah and Eli. Moving away from the Philadelphia area, where their Jewish identity was readily reinforced, they have settled in a small town with only one other Jewish family and a considerable ride to Jewish institutions. The Goldens are clearly outsiders, and the way they are addressed by many of the townspeople carries a brand of politeness that barely veils a cultural tradition of anti-Semitism.

Professor Andrew Furman
Credit Benjamin Rusnak

Prof. Furman portrays how Isaac and Melody deal with their displacement and discomfort with skill and sensitivity.

The story of Isaac’s attempt to develop improved breeds of oranges becomes a continuing lesson in citrus science. Prof. Furman provides a large specialized vocabulary that is the basis for reader understanding of Isaac’s mission and of the industry he has entered. This material and the extensive exposition should fall flat, but somehow the author makes it sing. He does this by capturing Isaac’s poetic passion, especially his interest in avoiding chemical pesticides and employing means of protecting his groves using natural, nontoxic agents.

Well, he is spending more money than he is likely to make. Melody develops a roadside business selling from her vegetable garden, from the groves, and from the kitchen – her wonderful pies add much-needed income to the Goldens’ enterprise. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the August 22, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 23 Naples, Bonita Spring, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Goldens Are Here

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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Extraordinary Jewish family drama explores questions of identity and obligation

Elizabeth Poliner, As Close to Us as Breathing. A Lee Boudreaux Book. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

There is no shortage of books focused on Jewish family life, but Elizabeth Poliner’s novel stands apart as an instant classic. It is an inspired literary exploration of the tension between personal and family identity, between masculine and feminine models of achievement, between tradition as habit and tradition as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.  Poliner_AsClosetoUsasBreathing

Though the novel examines an extended family and its world over three generations, its point of focus is the summer of 1948, immediately following modern Israel’s birth and, for the Leibritsky family, the trauma of its youngest member’s accidental death. Spatially and culturally, its main arena is a place informally named Bagel Beach: the family vacation area on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound that constitutes a summer Jewish beachfront neighborhood in the midst of other ethnic enclaves.

The narrative reaches us through the voice of Molly, middle child and only daughter of Ada and Mort Leibritsky. Mort, the kingpin of the family, owns Leibritsky’s Department Store in Middletown, inherited from his father. His brother, brother-in-law, and, occasionally, his older son work there. A moderately observant Jew, Mort carries on his father’s mantra of responsibility to his God and to the Jewish people. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cottage over weekends; the women live there through the summer months. Beautiful, queen-like Ada reigns over the household: her sisters Vivie and Bec; her children Howard, Molly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daughter, Nina, who is a few years older than Molly. At the time of her brother’s death, Molly is twelve years old; in her middle age, she delivers the grand Leibritsky saga, passed down to Molly by her parents and aunts.

Poliner

Poliner

Poliner treats the summer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increasing significance through the power of this family disaster. Like all families, this one has many challenges, as do its individual members. Molly allows us to see them, feel them, and understand them. Sisters are estranged. Love is frustrated by duty. Marriages fail. A boy dies for no reason. And still, individuals persevere to lead remarkable lives. By opening and closing the aperture, Poliner is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accomplishment, and frustration. We witness her characters responding to social changes, their own maturing and aging, their own realized or thwarted sense of destiny.

Poliner handles the texture of Jewish family life with brilliance, authenticity, and a touch of wistfulness. Mort makes Jewish identity and ritual observance a debt always in need of servicing. Why can’t people inconvenience themselves a bit for what others have died for? Howard’s decision to follow Mort’s sense of tribal duty and forsake his Irish-Catholic true love turns him to a life of meeting the expectations of others. He marries a Jewish woman, has children, muddles through as a physician, but passes away at an early age—as if his sacrifices of the heart have shortened his life.

Scenes of men praying and of women preparing—excitedly or grudgingly—for Shabbat dinners create a pronounced background music for the characters’ largely secular lives and concerns. What do you owe your parents, your people, and your creator? What do you owe yourself? When have you paid enough?

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Book Council. Find daily new reviews, reading recommendations, and more at www.jewishbookcouncil.org

Reprinted in the August 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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A stunning immigrant tale of identity, inheritance, and transformation

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman. Harper. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This novel ties together an exploration of the immigrant experience, the roots of personal identity, and the possible shapes of families. It is an episodic quest narrative that attempts to answer the question: “What makes eight year old Max Rubin so strange?” This is the question that has been growing larger and larger in the mind of Maya Shulman Rubin, the woman who with her husband Alex adopted the infant Max. The quest is a journey to the Montana home of Max’s birth parents, where Maya feels the answer must lie.  Dontletmybabydorodeohcc

For Alex, Max doesn’t seem quite so strange; his reluctant agreement to take the journey grows out of his need to sooth a range of stresses in the marriage. That is, he wishes to satisfy his wife – somehow.

Alex and Maya live in suburban New Jersey. The son of Russian immigrants, Alex met Maya when she came to the U. S. from the Ukraine as an exchange student. They are both children of Jewish parents whose sense of Jewish identity, while strong, does not include active involvement in Jewish ritual or community life. Alex, who had struggled for a defining career, has ended up working for his father’s import business. Maya’s dreams of becoming a chef gave way to a job as a medical technician. Seemingly infertile (we learn late in the novel that their childlessness had to do with Alex, not Maya), she ironically meets breasts daily while taking mammography images.

Maya’s insistent need to be a mother leads them, in their mid-thirties, to adopt. Their steps in taking this action seem flawed – or at least naïve. The Montana couple, not yet out of their teens, needs to meet the adopters, and they deliver the child to the Rubins rather than use professional intermediaries. They give up all rights. It is the birth mother, Laurel, who utters the title phrase: “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.” She has seen how rodeo has torn up her husband.

The point of attack is eight years later. Maya is approaching her forty-third birthday. The Rubins’ situation as a family is not what they hoped it would be. Moreover, there is some kind of wildness in Max. He enjoys sleeping in a tent behind the house, collecting and perhaps consuming grass samples, and communing with animals. He doesn’t fit in at school. He doesn’t make friends. One day, when he is supposed to board the school bus for his return home, he gets on a public bus and disappears.

Fishman

Fishman

After he is discovered and brought home, and after professional help toward understanding Max’s behavior proves ineffective, the family begins the journey to Montana.

The 2,000 mile journey is a new beginning (perhaps actually the first beginning) of their American lives, which until now have been highly restricted. This is especially true for Maya, who came to the U.S. when she was many years older than Alex was upon his arrival and thus is not as fully acclimated. Still, they have been living inside of the older Rubins’ immigrant family patterns and still seem like they have not yet grown up.

The journey is an informal education in American openness, as well as other qualities symbolized by the immensity and variety of the landscapes they move through. Once again, it’s like they have moved to a foreign country – but this time they are much faster learners. They are tested over and over again, with mixed success, but always with personal growth. Again, Maya is more dynamic than Alex in these travel chapters, just as she is throughout the novel. Thus her eyes are opened more widely and she learns much more about herself.

An affair assists her education, as does a comment made when she finally engages Max’s birth mother again. (This scene has a dreamlike quality and might be taken as a dream or reverie.) Laurel suggests that Max’s wildness is not some eruption of genetic traits but rather the restless vibes he has picked up from Maya – the true, if repressed, wild one. Though they come from different color palettes, Maya and Max have become profoundly related.

Though the Rubins, returning to New Jersey, are not fully transformed, they seem far more capable of transformation. They seem capable of self-creation – of forging (such a double-edged word) identities more vital than the immigrant cloaks they have been wearing. As middle age approaches, they are finally growing up.

I came to love this book more and more as I stayed in it. The expository matter that prefaces the trip to Montana can drag a bit, though it is necessary. Fishman’s wit is not so fully on display here as in A Replacement Life, but you’ve got to like a guy who knows that the perfect car model name for this quest is the Ford Escape.

This review appears in the July-August 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“As Close to Us as Breathing,” by Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00

There is no shortage of books focused on Jewish family life, but Elizabeth Poliner’s stands apart as an instant classic. It is an inspired literary exploration of the tension between personal and family identity, between masculine and feminine models of achievement, between tradition as habit and tradition as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.

Though the novel examines an extended family and its world over three generations, its point of focus is the summer of 1948, immediately following modern Israel’s birth and, for the Leibritsky family, the trauma of its youngest member’s accidental death. Spatially and culturally, its main arena is a place informally named Bagel Beach: the family vacation area on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound that constitutes a summer Jewish beachfront neighborhood in the midst of other ethnic enclaves. Poliner_AsClosetoUsasBreathing

The narrative reaches us through the voice of Molly, middle child and only daughter of Ada and Mort Leibritsky. Mort, the kingpin of the family, owns Leibritsky’s Department Store in Middletown, inherited from his father. His brother, brother-in-law, and, occasionally, his older son work there. A moderately observant Jew, Mort carries on his father’s mantra of responsibility to his God and to the Jewish people. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cottage over weekends; the women live there through the summer months. Beautiful, queen-like Ada reigns over the household: her sisters Vivie and Bec; her children Howard, Molly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daughter, Nina, who is a few years older than Molly. At the time of her brother’s death, Molly is twelve years old; in her middle age, she delivers the grand Leibritsky saga, passed down to Molly by her parents and aunts.

Poliner

Poliner

Poliner treats the summer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increasing significance through the power of this family disaster. Like all families, this one has many challenges, as do its individual members. Molly allows us to see them, feel them, and understand them. Sisters are estranged. Love is frustrated by duty. Marriages fail. A boy dies for no reason. And still, individuals persevere to lead remarkable lives. By opening and closing the aperture, Poliner is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accomplishment, and frustration. We witness her characters responding to social changes, their own maturing and aging, their own realized or thwarted sense of destiny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner | Jewish Book Council

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