This second moving novel by Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a love story that catches the two protagonists in a clash of cultures and religious identities that reveals how powerfully the past plays upon the present and future.
Cleo is a beautiful African American left-wing feminist talk-show host in New York City and the daughter of a mid-20th century black Baptist preacher who had been mentored and supported by a Jew in the racist south. Upon her father’s untimely death, another kindhearted Jewish family gives Cleo’s mother a desperately needed job and her family a place to live. Cleo consequently has a warm spot in her heart for Jews despite the experiences of many of her African American radio listeners who bear anti-Semitic animus against the Jews they have known as slum-lords.
Zach is a politically liberal Bronx yeshiva-educated atheist child of Holocaust survivors, becomes an ACLU lawyer and does pro-Bono legal work for a nonprofit called “Families of Holocaust Survivors.” Zach’s only sibling was an older brother he never met who, as a toddler, was shot in the head by a Nazi as his parents watched in horror. He feels empathy with the African American situation and is a solid liberal thinker, but he feels duty-bound to honor the promise he made to his dying mother that he would marry a Jew and bring Jewish children into the world not only to assure Jewish continuity but to help replace the 6 million and avenge his brother’s murder.
Cleo and Zach encounter one another in the early 1980s when a Black Preacher and a Rabbi invite them with other New York black and Jewish leaders to restore the Black-Jewish alliance that once existed during the civil rights movement. This occurs as Black-Jewish relations fray in the aftermath of the anti-Semitic rants of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Jessie Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a veteran writer of eleven books. She is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, a journalist, political activist, wife, mother, grandmother, and a serious Jew who has spent years participating in dialogue groups with African American, Jewish, Israeli, and Palestinian women. Feminism, liberalism and positive Jewish identification permeate the novel.
Pogrebin’s prose can be deeply moving, such as the novel’s opening paragraph:
“ZACHARIAH ISAAC LEVY grew up in a family of secrets, of conversations cut short by his entrance into a room, of thick-tongued speech and guttural names and the whisper of weeping. His parents spoke in short, stubby sentences, as if words could be used up, and often in a language they refused to translate. From the grammar of their sighs, he came to understand that Yiddish was reserved for matters unspeakable in English and memories too grim for a child’s ear.”
As I neared the end of the novel, I visited a congregant struggling with metastasized cancer who herself is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, a serious Jew, a fluent Hebrew speaker with strong family ties in Israel, who has devoted her life to furthering justice and enriching Jewish community. Her son is in love with a non-Jewish woman and, though the young woman is wonderful, my friend is tortured by the very issues that are at the core of Pogrebin’s novel. I recommended that she read it because Pogrebin’s perspective could well offer my friend a measure of insight and comfort.
This book raises many questions: ‘What is Judaism?’ ‘Who is a Jew?’ ‘What ought a Jew know and do to enrich one’s own Jewish life and to assure that Judaism, Jewish practice, culture, ethics, and faith carry forward into the next generation?’ ‘What are the challenges that intermarriage brings to Jewish families?’
The book addresses as well the situation of children of survivors and, in light of the present, challenges their obligations to deceased parents who suffered the indignities of the Shoah.
Though Pogrebin does not deal with the question of how one justifies faith in the God of Jewish tradition in light of evil and the suffering of the innocent, nor does she offer a way to affirm Jewish faith in a liberal non-Orthodox context after the Holocaust, she does effectively present the tension between prophetic humanism and tribal particularism as it plays out in Zach’s inner conflict.
At the novel’s conclusion, Pogrebin brings everything together in a n’chemta (i.e. a hopeful and comforting series of teachings presented by Zach’s Orthodox childhood rabbi).
Rabbi Eleazar Goldfarb is a wise, loving and visionary mentor who lives comfortably between the two worlds of Jewish tradition and modernity primarily because he knows exactly who he is and what he believes. He deftly brings essential Jewish teachings to a tortured Zach.
This book is a wonderful read and provocatively challenges past Jewish assumptions in light of contemporary circumstances.
Community note: Letty Cottin Pogrebin will be the guest speaker at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles on Friday evening, October 30 during a community Shabbat dinner following Kabbalat Shabbat services. She will discuss the many issues she raises in this novel. The community is invited.