THE CARETAKERS by Bernard Mathias
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Winner of the Hermes and Bonardi prizes when it was published in 1982 in France: an often beautiful coming-of-age novel about a Jewish boy growing up in France after WW II, and his long struggle to throw off the oppressive strictures of his family's religious orthodoxy. Living in the bucolic French countryside with his parents and older sister, little Daniel Jonasz is aware that he has come into existence just after ""a universal catastrophe."" Born of Eastern European parents who managed somehow to escape the pogroms and camps of the Nazi world (his father wants passionately to emigrate to Palestine--the year is 1946--but his exhausted mother dreads yet again leaving one country for another), Daniel laments his forced departure from the provincial countryside when his family moves to Paris. There, Daniel's father becomes secretary to a synagogue whose postwar congregation is close-knit, deeply orthodox, and determined to preserve the religious identity and rituals that had been so nearly destroyed. Crowded with his family into a humiliatingly poor, one-room apartment, Daniel undergoes the demanding rigors of his religious education--ruthless study, memorization, and endless ceremony--coming simultaneously to resent the intolerable rigidities of his parents' faith (""I wanted no part of it. . .this need to begin again, to continue"") and to understand them as a precious cradle of hope and dignity after the unspeakable demolishments of the Holocaust. In his adolescence, the struggle continues, but gradually the richness and promise of Paris in the late 50's--its movies, bistros, young people, and intellectual vitality--draw him away from the ritualized preservations of the past (""Yiddish, a language of corpses,"" he says at one moment); he enrolls at end in a branch of the French university, falls into a love affair, and understands that he will no longer serve selflessly as a caretaker of the dead, although his ongoing and deeply felt reverence is expressed wondrously in a closing journey to the Transylvanian village of his mother's birth. Although oddly rushed in its concluding sections, a richly evocative and compelling study of a devout family and one of its maturing sons in the aftermath of one of history's most grotesquely heinous passages.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Viking