by Allegra Goodman ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 14, 1998
Another absorbing, albeit low-key foray into the world of Orthodox Jews, by the author of two story collections: Total Immersion (1989) and The Family Markowitz (1996). Covering two years (1976--78) in the life of the devout community led by Ray Elijah Kirshner, Goodman chronicles spiritual and psychological journeys taken by various group members. The principal events occur in the Kirshners' summer retreat, the upstate town of Kaaterskill, with a few key scenes in their New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Model Orthodox wife and mother Elizabeth Shulman has always found the Rav's strict laws as natural as the air she breathes, but now her experiences running a kosher store in Kaaterskill expose tensions between Orthodox Judaism's strictly defined role for women and Elizabeth's ambitions for herself and her daughters. As the Rav's health worsens, he softens toward his apostate son, scholarly, skeptical Jeremy, to the distress of long-suffering Isaiah, who has spent years as their father's unthanked amanuensis and putative but unacknowledged successor. Conflicts also simmer between Andras Melish, whose primary loyalty is to his elderly sisters, and his much younger wife, Nina; between the determined-to-be-pious Nina and their rebellious daughter, Renee; and in the breast of Elizabeth's daughter Chani, fascinated by modern Israel even though the Kirshners don't consider it a true Jewish homeland. Though all Goodman's people are believably complex and emotionally engaging, the best character here is the surprisingly cynical Rav himself, slightly contemptuous of disciples who lack his grounding in the more worldly culture of pre-Holocaust Europe. Subplots involving Kaaterskill's Yankee residents and a local real estate developer are less interesting, and, as in The Family Markowitz, Goodman doesn't develop much narrative momentum. The only really dramatic moment comes when Elizabeth loses rabbinical permission to operate her store; otherwise the author relies on quiet moments of tentative reconciliation to wrap up her story. You don't read Goodman for thrills, but for rich characterizations and faultless evocation of a cloistered culture--pleasures in ample supply here.
Pub Date: Aug. 14, 1998
Page Count: 304
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1998
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