These newly published, Jewish-themed novels are sure to delight and challenge readers. (Read part one here.)
“Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
This difficult, poignant and meditative story begins and ends in the “fluorescent glow of a jail cell” where Jonathan—the narrator—is held two days after his 19th birthday. Two years earlier, Jonathan and his family came back to Israel after living for years in central Pennsylvania. Upon his return, Jonathan meets Nimreen and Laith, a twin sister and brother who are Palestinian Israelis. The three become fast friends, smoking pot and hitchhiking all over Israel together. Over the course of their friendship, they fall in love with one another, presenting to the reader a dreamy sort of sexual fluidity. Rothman-Zecher’s plot unfolds in long, poetic letters that Jonathan writes to Laith.
But this being a contemporary Israeli novel, it has much to observe about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The title comes from a verse—“Sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield”—from an evocative poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the “unofficial national poet” of the Palestinians. Like all young Israelis, Jonathan enters military service in the Israel Defense Forces. Nimreen and Laith, who carry the memory of their grandfather, whom Israeli soldiers killed in 1956, are unhappy about their friend’s new role as a paratrooper. Jonathan contends with his family’s ghosts as well. His grandfather is traumatized by his brother’s murder in Nazi-occupied Greece. These two tragedies eventually drive a wedge among Jonathan, Nimreen and Laith. After a brief trip to Salonica, Greece, Jonathan is determined to forge ahead into the future, no longer entertaining the fantasy that he and Nimreen might one day have Israeli-Arab children.
When Jonathan’s unit is sent into the territories to quell a riot, he disobeys orders to attack the Palestinian crowd. At one point, he hallucinates that Laith is among the protestors who are killed. Jonathan is taken to a military jail, where he suffers an emotional breakdown. Rothman-Zecher, an American-Israeli who lives in the Midwest, writes about love, desire and duty in a lyrical prose that conveys an unforgettable story.
“Three Floors Up: A Novel” by Eshkol Nevo
Eshkol Nevo’s short, clever novel highlights the lives of three residents of a suburban Tel Aviv apartment building. Arnon, who lives on the first floor with his wife and two young children, suspects that his elderly neighbor has molested his 8-year-old daughter. His suspicion transforms into an obsession. He has a devastating affair with the neighbor’s teenage granddaughter in an effort to spy on the man. Arnon desperately conveys his story to his friend, a writer who remains resolutely offstage.
On the second floor, Hani is a lonely and overwhelmed wife and mother. Her husband is always away on business, earning her the moniker “the widow” from her neighbors. Hani calls her sanity into question after she harbors her fugitive brother-in-law, who is hiding from the mob. With no one else to talk to—her therapist has died—she writes a long, arduous letter to her best friend now teaching college in a small American town. The two women have not been in touch for years, but Hani pours her heart out in a letter that details her attraction to her brother-in-law and her disillusionment with motherhood.
Devora, a retired judge, lives above Arnon and Hani on the third floor. Recently widowed, Devora’s husband was also a judge who insisted on disowning their troubled son. Alone in her apartment, Devora watches news footage on television of people protesting Tel Aviv’s steep housing prices. She decides to join the demonstrators in person, and while there she is drawn into their cause. The reader learns all of this in the short, episodic messages Devora leaves to her deceased husband on his answering machine.
The influence of Sigmund Freud’s theories on these intense monologues is very transparent. The id on the first floor, the ego on the second and the superego on the third dramatize each of Freud’s stages. By the end, Nevo has brilliantly transformed these individual narratives into a compelling novel of linked stories.
“The Lost Family: A Novel” by Jenna Blum
The year is 1965 and Peter Rashkin is the proprietor of a swanky restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. The place is named for his late wife, Masha, who died with their twin daughters during a Nazi roundup in Berlin. Peter, a Holocaust survivor, is a man burdened with secrets that he cannot whisper even to himself.
“The Lost Family” is Jenna Blum’s third novel. Ambitious in scope, the novel is a triptych composed of stories that belong to the three main characters. Peter, who would be adrift without the financial and emotional support of his cousins Sol and Ruth, narrates the first section. But his cousins’ sponsorship comes at a heavy price for Peter that includes tolerating Sol’s mob ties and dealing with Ruth’s ongoing interference in his life.
One night at Masha’s—a place where Walter Cronkite’s customized burger is on the menu—Peter meets June Bouquet (yes, that’s really her name), a successful Twiggyesque model 19 years his junior. Their romance unfolds against the backdrop of the late 1960s. Blum pays close attention to period details that include excerpts from Masha’s menu and descriptions of June’s minidresses. The two eventually marry and have a daughter.
The story then segues into 1970s New Jersey and is narrated by June. Masha’s is closed and Peter runs another restaurant in the suburbs. Now a bored housewife, June resents Peter’s brooding, as well as her young daughter Elsbeth’s toddler antics. June rebels by attending women’s consciousness-raising meetings and starting an affair with Gregg, the tennis pro at her country club. Gregg suffers from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. In the midst of this frenzy, Peter suffers a massive heart attack that stops June from leaving the marriage.
The last section of the book belongs to Elsbeth. It is now the 1980s and she is an unhappy teenager. She adores her sickly father and resents her chain-smoking realtor mother for body-shaming her. She meets Julian, a photographer at a luncheon that Sol and Ruth have thrown in his honor at their Westchester estate. She becomes infatuated with Julian, whose work is a cross between Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann’s, and secretly poses for him in the nude. Elsbeth’s weight issues and her perception that she is not as beautiful as her mother come to the foreground during those sessions, and she subsequently becomes anorexic.
Throughout the novel, one question continuously drives these characters: Is it possible to start life anew after an unspeakable loss? Blum doesn’t have an easy answer, but she nimbly demonstrates how corrosive, and even deadly, secrecy can be.
“The Bible of Dirty Jokes: A Novel” by Eileen Pollack
Eileen Pollack is one of the most talented and versatile writers working today. Pollack, a novelist, short story writer and essayist, has written accomplished non-fiction as well as compelling novels, some of which are set in her native Catskills. Her newest novel is a prodigious example of mining Borscht Belt culture and humor to great effect.
Ketzel Weinrach Tittleman is newly widowed and on a mission to find her brother, Potsie Weinrach, who has disappeared from his Las Vegas home. Ketzel starts her journey at her parents’ decrepit Catskills hotel, where bodies and secrets have been buried for more than 40 years. The Weinrach family has suffered terrible losses—Ketzel’s three older brothers have either died or disappeared. She’s determined to find Potsie to end their run of miserable luck. After all, she reasons, how long can a 300-pound man go undetected?
But Potsie is not a man who is just a big-time eater and small-time gambler—he’s a bookie who runs with a dangerous crowd that includes his sleazy cousin Perry. Perry lives in Las Vegas, where he runs a strip club that appeals to the basest of fantasies involving schoolgirls. It turns out that Perry, who has also disappeared, runs a pornography business on the side.
The title of the book refers to Ketzel’s late husband’s decades-long project of collecting dirty jokes. Ketzel makes the posthumous discovery that husband Morty also had an extensive sex-toy collection. She finds receipts that indicate Morty may have been doing more than compiling dirty jokes; he may have actually lived out some of the punch lines with strippers and prostitutes.
Pollack has a sophisticated sense of humor that she uses to great effect. “The Bible of Dirty Jokes” crosses genres to become overall an engaging mystery. It’s that rare great beach read that also carries much literary merit.
“The Immortalists: A Novel” by Chloe Benjamin
Chloe Benjamin’s astonishing second novel asks an existential question: How would you live your life if you knew the exact date of your death? On New York’s Lower East Side, the four Gold children, who range in age from 8 to 14, have consulted with a fortuneteller. The mysterious woman with two long braids is meant to be a distraction from the hot, boring summer. But as each child meets the fortuneteller individually, she tells them the unthinkable—the exact dates of their deaths. It is 1969 and the Golds live a rich Jewish life. It’s also the summer of Woodstock and the Stonewall riots—a dizzying mashup of culture and history.
Benjamin structures her book into four sections, each focusing on a different sibling. The first part tells Simon’s story. By the mid-1970s, Simon, the youngest of the brood, runs away at 16 with his sister Klara to San Francisco. He embraces his homosexuality and becomes a dancer. By the early ‘80s Simon will be among the first victims of the AIDS plague that has not yet been identified as such. He has known all along that he would die young, and yes, he dies on the date the fortuneteller had predicted.
Klara teaches herself the art of magic and becomes a brilliant performer. Like her grandmother, whom she never met, her specialty is to hang on high as she bites down on a rope. Klara and her husband are on the verge of making it big in Las Vegas when Klara, who hears voices and is most likely schizophrenic, hangs herself in a hotel room on her predetermined day and year.
Daniel becomes a military doctor who processes recruits to determine if they are fit for battle. He is obsessed with investigating Simon and Klara’s deaths, which leads him into his fulfilling macabre destiny. Only Varya, the oldest, is predicted to live to a ripe old age. Ironically, she is a scientist who studies longevity, until she has a breakdown trying to outsmart death. She eventually accepts her siblings’ deaths and begins to heal.
Each of the four sections is a crisp period piece. And Benjamin asks an overarching question: Were the Golds destined to die on the day the fortuneteller predicted, or did they construct lives hurtling toward certain death? It’s a haunting, open inquiry that Benjamin leaves decidedly ambiguous.
Check out last year’s summer reading roundup here.