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Shirley Russak Wachtel

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Shirley Russak Wachtel is best known for her memoir, MY MOTHER'S SHOES, which follows her mother's life from her hometown of Dombrowe, Poland, throughout her tortuous time in a labor camp and Bergen Belsen, and finally her emergence with emotional scars as she and her husband establish a new life in Brooklyn, New York. Written in three distinct voices, Blima, the hopeful young woman living in Europe; her alter-ego Betty, a wife and mother of two in America; and Shirley, her daughter and author of the book, the novel is ultimately a testimony to the bonds between mother and daughter, and the sustaining power of family. She continues to delve into the human spirit in her next novel, THE MUSIC MAKERS, the story of five individuals living in upstate New York, their individual struggles and the mysterious presence of the boy from another time who permeates their lives. THREE FOR A DOLLAR is a book of original short stories, all character portrayals which explore the idea of that which makes us uniquely human. In addition to these novels, she has published a collection of poetry, IN THE MELLOW LIGHT, several books for children, along with a series of college reading textbooks, SPOTLIGHT ON READING, published by Kendall/Hunt.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shirley's life has been shadowed by her parents' ordeal and their losses as a result of the Holocaust, and she has devoted her life through her writing and teaching for humanistic causes. In 2017, she received the Faculty Scholar of the Year Award from Middlesex County College (where she has been a professor of English for the past 25 years) for helping to establish a Holocaust and Human Rights Center, her literary contributions, and her research and publication of reading texts. She holds a Doctor of Letters Degree from Drew University, and has been a newspaper editor, freelance writer, and lecturer for several years. But she considers her family her greatest accomplishment. Shirley lives with her husband, Arthur, in New Jersey, and is the mother of three grown sons and two beautiful granddaughters, Zoey and Emmy.

THIS I KNOW Cover
BOOK REVIEW

THIS I KNOW

BY Shirley Russak Wachtel • POSTED ON March 15, 2018

Searching for answers about her mother’s past, a woman visits a psychic and an uncle she barely knows in this literary novel.

In 2010, an Orthodox Jewish woman visits the Manhattan consulting room of psychic Jennifer Rose, once Rosetti. Ever since her mother Rebecca’s death, Ora Neumann, 61, has been sunk in depression and desperately needs to hear her mother’s voice again, although her religion and her husband forbid trafficking with the occult. But she’s disappointed by the session and waits another two years to open her mother’s jewelry box, afraid of its possible secrets. The contents lead Ora to Uncle Henry, 87, whom she remembers only hazily. From him, she slowly extracts her mother’s story. Born in Poland, Rebecca, her brothers, and her fiancé, Shmuel, escaped to America before World War II; Rebecca’s school friend Tsipora “Tsipi” Greenstein stayed behind and survived the Holocaust. In 1947, Rebecca and her now-husband Shmuel, together with Henry and his co-worker Max, visit the thriving Kibbutz Tzofim in Palestine, where Tsipi now lives. Rebecca loves kibbutz life and stays on for a time when Shmuel returns to America and his job as Tsipi and Max begin a romance. Tsipi reveals that the kibbutz shelters a hidden munitions factory turning out bullets for the upcoming war of independence. Other revelations from Henry provide Ora with a new understanding of her mother that finally gives her peace, as she reports in a letter to the psychic. Wachtel (Three for a Dollar, 2017, etc.) taps into the near-universal longing to understand one’s roots. Together with the well-described historical settings, this lends urgency to the book. The book’s lyrical tone, however, can feel overcooked, especially since it’s employed, implausibly, by every character: “Freed, her red auburn ringlets threw sparks into the night air as Tsipi took one last glance up at the moon, as if the two possessed some long-held secret.” 

An overwrought exploration of family and history.

Pub Date: March 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-68433-022-5

Page count: 132pp

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Review Posted Online: May 9, 2018

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FICTION & LITERATURE

THE MUSIC MAKERS

BY Shirley Russak Wachtel • POSTED ON Oct. 10, 2014

In Wachtel’s (My Mother’s Shoes, 2011, etc.) novel, suffering crosses generations, from a teenager in anguished love to an enfeebled survivor of Auschwitz.

“During all events in our lives, both great and small, the moment always passes too swiftly. Something like a dream,” muses Joshua, one of the novel’s conflicted principal characters, as he reflects on past loss. Dreams and memories linger over events both great and small in the lives of two families in upstate New York. Joshua, the middle-aged single father to diffident Adam, is haunted by a moment that ended one life and began another. “I knew the dream had vanished the minute my son uttered his first cry,” he remembers. His father, David, “cries more than he speaks,” forever unable to escape the events of the Holocaust—both those that changed everything in an instant and those that made several years feel like “several lifetimes in the nether world.” In another household, tax attorney Virginia contends with one daughter, Meghan, about to leave for college and another, Christine, who is just past college age. The relationship between Christine, a tattooed sculptor with purple-streaked hair, and her mother is laden with grievances and misunderstanding. Christine manifests her torment through bodily harm, while her mother begins to see a young boy who may be an illusion, a dream himself. Wachtel’s novel is a poignant exploration of the struggles—whether unique, universal, historical or ephemeral, whether happenstance or deliberate—that ebb and flow throughout life. There is a practically visceral ache behind each character’s meditations. (That sensation is particularly harrowing in David’s recollections of his experiences during and just after the war, which shift events to Poland and Prague.) Yet in spite of it all, there is also a sense that, no matter how many dreams and illusions haunt us, life is a transient gift deserving of gratitude. “I’ve been suffering from a tear in the spirit, but still I am in perfect health,” Joshua says. His words reflect what the events around him make clear: Tears in the spirit mend, and being alive means persistent struggle and survival.

A touching study rich with introspection and finely crafted relationships.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500785529

Page count: 350pp

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

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BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR

MY MOTHER'S SHOES

BY Shirley Russak Wachtel • POSTED ON Oct. 17, 2011

Poet and children’s author Wachtel views her mother’s remarkable life, first recounted in The Story of Blima: A Holocaust Survivor (2005), through a creative new lens.

In 1941, Blima Weisstuch, the eldest daughter of a shoe merchant in Dombrowe, Poland, was abducted by the Gestapo before her mother’s eyes, shattering forever a domestic Eden of fresh-faced sisters, quarreling brothers, ritual dinners and the warmth of a mother’s embrace. Transported by cattle car with hundreds of other Jewish women to Grünberg labor camp, Blima is made to sew German uniforms and begins, slowly, to starve. Only a Catholic guard with a mothering instinct guarantees her survival by slipping her crusts of bread. Finally liberated and reunited with a brother, Blima marries a fellow Holocaust survivor, emigrates to Brooklyn and gives birth to Shirley, a coddled mother’s girl, who eventually grows up to write this richly imagined memoir. Wachtel (In the Mellow Light, 2009) structures her story in flashbacks narrated by Blima, Shirley and Betty—the name Blima takes in America. Each woman’s story propels the others’ over five decades. Betty and her husband, Chiel, run a Laundromat and produce a son. Shirley marries and becomes a writer. As family tables are set, the past bubbles up until an aging Blima faces death. Among Wachtel’s adroitly rendered scenes of Jewish domestic and communal life, of wartime Poland and 1950s New York, are several small masterpieces; a baby is accidentally dropped and dies, an apple is menacingly peeled in a labor camp, ice melts under a woman’s exhausted body in a Polish forest, a father weeps openly over his failure to provide, matzos are broken and challah is dipped. Wachtel entwines the singular and the ordinary with quiet lyricism. In the end, the eponymous shoes are upstaged; it is food that beckons, vanishes and sates. From the raisin breads of the Old World to the tenderly saved chicken bones of the new, food binds mothers to daughters and women to the world. Wachtel tells us she cannot fathom the Holocaust. That food is love and manna is life—this she proves. An evocative, moveable feast plumbing past and present with equal grace.

 

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2011

ISBN: 978-1463674151

Page count: 266pp

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2011

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FICTION & LITERATURE

THREE FOR A DOLLAR

BY Shirley Russak Wachtel

A series of interconnected short stories centers on one community and many of its people.

Wachtel’s (The Music Makers, 2014, etc.) collection of 20 tales focuses on seemingly simple, ordinary people, looking inside their lives to discover quick moments of doubt, quiet crises, and intricate webs of self-deception. These are the residents of a New Jersey community much like any other, and the prism through which Wachtel views many of their lives is the Jewish American experience of synagogue and shul, of rabbis and holy days. In “Stealing Time,” young Lizzie Kempner’s life is derailed by the discovery of her shoplifting habit; in “A Woman of Valor,” dutiful, thwarted Mrs. Tinsel endures the sudden, unexpected death of her indifferent husband; in “Sleeping on Glaciers,” Rabbi Jake Goodman quietly contends not only with his son’s autism, but also with persistent hints of his own deteriorating health; in “JoJo’s Fear,” a family confronts a tragedy symbolized by the death of the family dog; and in “Done,” Simon Waltrip, a retired hardware store owner, calmly, methodically contemplates his own suicide. In all these stories and more, Wachtel follows the same cast—characters only glimpsed in one tale go on to star in another—through the ostensibly mundane concerns of their lives. The writing throughout is more workmanlike than showy and in need of a strong editor: typos, odd omissions, and awkward sentences occur frequently (for example, “boxer shirts”; “articles on both the Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris world accords”). Wachtel sometimes displays a flair for description (In “Fog,” she writes: “It was one of those pink spring days when the sky opened wide to a million possibilities”). And her dialogue invests her characters with a vitality that’s often striking, including in “Sleeping on Glaciers,” in which a man doubts his faith (“ ‘When life ends, no matter the circumstances,’ he stopped, gulping air, ‘it ends. To say otherwise provides hope, but a false hope. To say otherwise is just plain—what’s the word? Dishonest’ ”). But for the most part, the prose here is a means for telling stories rather than an end in itself—efficient rather than dazzling. When readers encounter Lizzie’s thoughts, for instance, they hear them unadorned: “The time would come that she would be revealed for what she truly was—a nobody. A fake.” When Wachtel wants to convey the simple fidelity of a rabbi, she writes: “It was faith that had buoyed the life of Jake Goodman for as long as he could remember.” Readers watch as Waltrip, grieving for his wife and grappling with the failure of his business, emotionlessly plots the actual mechanics of his suicide. The tactic of braiding recurring characters into various tales works successfully here; it creates a tapestry feeling that only strengthens on rereading and that highlights the book’s subtle reminders that compelling stories lurk behind even the most straightforward outward appearances. In this way, “Done” may be the volume’s best offering—Waltrip’s experience of first planning his suicide and then rethinking it is entirely private, completely unseen by the other people in his community.

A plainspoken and ultimately involving collection of tales laying bare the complexities underneath normal suburban life.

Pub Date:

Page count: 209pp

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2017

ADDITIONAL WORKS AVAILABLE

In The Mellow Light

"The essence of a poem" writes Shirley Russak Wachtel in this poetry collection spanning over thirty years, "is the middle of things." This notion is beautifully illustrated in a variety of poetic styles including rhyme, free verse, pantoume, and haiku, as she illumines life's "ordinary" activities. Whether it is contemplating a red cardinal in her own backyard, emptying the sand from the pockets of her son's shorts, making a tuna fish sandwich, or watching the swollen backs of old women receding in the distance, these lyrical discoveries explore the supreme beauty in life's smallest, most precious moments.
ISBN: 978-1-4327-4322-2

THIS I KNOW

Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—1980 "I was only six when I first heard the voices. In the beginning, they seemed like soft murmurings, a forbidden conversation which I had somehow stumbled upon. But with time, my fear slowly began to melt away as I learned to listen. It was only when I found myself stranded in a kind of purgatory between wakefulness and sleep that I began to understand their significance. And the overwhelming but unalterable responsibility I was about to undertake. " This is how Shirley Russak Wachtel's latest novel, THIS I KNOW, begins. The author weaves a tale beginning with a Brooklyn grandmother's visit to a psychic as she begins a search for the mother she had lived with all her life, but whom she never really knew. It is a search which will take her to the past, to a place across an ocean where a dedicated group of soldiers labor in a secret munitions factory set for a monumental war for independence. As she nears the answer to her quest, Ora discovers much more than she ever anticipated.