Off the shelf: Jewish-themed leisure reading stretches out summer days

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What do we mean when we talk about summer reading? My own first association evokes drudgery and anxiety — “summer reading” was what my college called having to complete “Moby-Dick” in preparation for freshman English (and my relationship with Melville’s opus has yet to recover).

For most of us, however, summer reading has a different connotation — it is about reading as luxury, liberated from responsibility. For some, it is about enjoying something light and entertaining. For others, it represents the opportunity to spend time catching up on our personal backlists, or to pursue the challenging novel that can’t withstand the interruptions and stresses of daily life.

Francesca Segal’s debut novel “The Innocents” is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence.” Segal deftly transposes the drama from Wharton’s 19-century New York upper crust to an insular present-day Jewish community in London’s northwestern suburbs. There is noteworthy irony in this new setting, as Wharton harbored a pronounced distaste for Jews.

Adam Newman, a 28-year-old lawyer, is engaged to marry his longtime girlfriend Rachel, whose father also heads Adam’s law firm. However, once Rachel’s cousin Ellie, recently expelled from college in the United States for scandalous behavior, comes on the scene, all bets are off. The conventions and security that had comforted Adam now feel suffocating, and he begins to lead an internal double life as he becomes torn between the prospect of a stable and familiar life with Rachel and the lure of the worldly Ellie and the path not taken. And this all takes place against the backdrop of a community in which everybody knows everybody else’s business.

Anouk Markovits’ beautifully written “I Am Forbidden” follows two women from Transylvania to New York over a period of 60 years. Rescued from her parents’ fate during World War II, young Mila is brought to a Satmar Hassidic family, who bring her up as a sister to their daughter Atara. The family moves to Paris, and the girls are given a religious education in England. The ever-questioning Atara ultimately rejects Orthodoxy, and she is cut off from her family (and from much of the remainder of the novel).

Meanwhile, Mila conforms to the tradition and moves to Brooklyn to marry the boy who had shielded her during the war. Although they are as soul mates, their relationship becomes strained when they find themselves unable to produce children. This is a source of great anguish in the Hassidic world, and the couple’s troubled response to this crisis is the source of much of the book’s drama.

It is a shame that, particularly in light of Deborah Feldman’s popular recent memoir “Unorthodox,” some have assumed incorrectly that Markovits’ novel is an attack on Satmar life. Although Markovits herself left the Satmar community in which she was raised to pursue a life that would have been forbidden to her (including degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Cornell), her presentation of Hassidic Jews is nuanced and frequently empathic. She portrays even fervent believers as vulnerable to deeply felt conflict between their own feelings and the strict standards of the tradition.

The book also picks at the scab of how the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum survived the war. Teitelbaum’s escape to Switzerland in 1944 was made possible by a controversial bargain between Hungar-ian Zionist Rudolf Kasztner and Adolf Eichmann that rescued more than 1,600 Jews in exchange for money, gold and jewels. The characters in “I Am Forbidden” are haunted by the fact that their fervently anti-Zionist leader was the beneficiary of Zionists, and, more poignantly, that he escaped while most of his followers perished.

On the opposite end of the fiction spectrum is today’s beach read: Devan Sipher’s “The Wedding Beat” is the rare specimen of popular romantic fiction penned from a male point of view. The book emerged from Sipher’s day job writing the New York Times’ popular “Vows” column.

In the novel, wedding columnist Gavin Greene is keenly aware of the dissonance between his job covering other people’s nuptials and his own failed romantic life. When he does finally meet a Jewish woman he is crazy about, his quest for love is sabotaged both by unexpected circumstances and his own propensity for self-doubt.

This is not my chosen genre, and I tend to prefer books that demand more from the reader. However, I found the book engaging, thanks to a strong narrative voice and a large dose of humor.

For those who do not turn to fiction for their leisure reading, one title to commend is Madeleine Albright’s “Prague Winter.” Born in Prague, the former secretary of state was raised as a Roman Catholic and later became an Episcopalian. It was not until she was nearly 60 that she learned her parents had been Jews, and that many family members had been murdered in the Holocaust.

This book, which emerged as Albright sought to understand this difficult legacy, is an unconventional one, pairing her personal story with the complicated history of Czechoslovakia. Though the emphasis on politics and diplomacy sometimes feels to be at the expense of digging deeper into personal stories and feelings, the book remains engaging and inform-ative throughout.


Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“The Innocents”

by Francesca Segal

(288 pages, Voice, $25.99)

“I Am Forbidden”

by Anouk Markovits

(320 pages, Hogarth, $25)


“The Wedding Beat”

by Devan Sipher

(256 pages, New American Library, $14)

 “Prague Winter:

A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948”

by Madeleine Albright

(480 pages, Harper, $29.99)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.