Off the Shelf | The power of love: Families struggle with food, feelings

We are sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah — two occasions when we place food at the center of our celebration, and then beat ourselves up afterwards for having eaten it.Food can be complicated. That’s one reason why Jami Attenberg’s new novel, “The Middlesteins,” has created a buzz: It captures our ambivalence toward eating, but does so with compassion and intelligence.

At the center of this multigenerational family saga set in Chicago’s suburbs is Edie Middlestein, a lawyer and the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. From an early age she takes refuge in food, and she comes to weigh over 300 pounds. As she awaits a second major surgery to save her life, her husband, Richard, walks out on her after nearly 40 years of marriage. This crisis calls on their adult children to act, but nobody seems up to the challenge.

Although it focuses a good deal on Edie’s food addiction, the book avoids judgment in favor of depicting the complexity of our relationship to food and self-control. For example, Edie’s daughter-in-law Rachelle reacts to Edie’s problems by obsessively putting her own family on a diet composed chiefly of raw vegetables, taking the pleasure out of eating. And Edie’s adult children Robin and Benny have their own indulgence issues, medicating themselves with alcohol and marijuana, respectively.

Ultimately, the book is not primarily about food, but about how families function — and fail to function. Attenberg’s warts-and-all attention to the Middlesteins does not keep us from developing feelings for them, or from sympathizing when their frustrations and resentments keep them from communicating the love they feel.

Like “The Middlesteins,” Israeli writer Dror Burstein’s novel “Kin” shifts back and forth between decades and points of view. But the style is extremely different: Burstein employs a spare, poetic prose that eschews linear storytelling in favor of relating disjointed feelings and memories. Indeed, some of the book’s major plot points need to be assembled from references strewn subtly among various chapters.

The plot is simple: Baby Emile is given up by a teenaged Israeli couple from a North African background, and adopted by Yoel and Leah, an infertile Ashkenazi couple. After Leah dies in a horrible accident, Yoel struggles over the course of three decades with the question of whether to reunite Emile with his birth parents.

The power in the book is its depth of feeling, made more poignant by Burstein’s use of understatement. Emile’s biological parents (referred to as [ ] and [ ], underscoring their anonymity to Emile), spend their lives painfully aware of their son’s absence. In one of the book’s saddest sequences, when Emile is of military age, his birth mother begins to comb the photographs in the newspaper’s death notices, in a dismal combination of hope and fear that she’ll be able to identify her son.

Meanwhile, Yoel wishes he could transcend being an adoptive father. As Emile matures and his Middle Eastern features become pronounced, Yoel goes so far as to dye his own fair hair black in an effort to erase the distance between him and his son. And, affectingly, when Emile requires a blood transfusion and Yoel is unable to donate because of his incompatible blood type, he begs the nurse to be allowed to give anyway.

The Dalkey Archive Press deserves commendation for publishing this book, as well as titles by writers such as Eshkol Nevo and Gabriela Avigur-Rotem, in its Hebrew Literature Series. While internationally renowned authors David Grossman, Meir Shalev and Amos Oz have their new work translated into English as a matter of course, the reality is that very few Israeli writers get such treatment.  Those of us who depend on translation suffer for being deprived of some of the major voices in contemporary Hebrew literature, including Burstein.

Finally, with Chanukah starting on Saturday, Dec. 8, here are a few new books perfect for last minute gift-giving:

For the sports fan: Edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, “Jewish Jocks” is a collection of 50 short essays composed expressly for this volume by writers as diverse as Lawrence Summers, David Remnick and Deborah Lipstadt, all exploring the significance of Jewish figures who made their mark in sports. The athletes range from bullfighter Sidney Franklin to gymnast Kerri Strug. There are also essays devoted to figures such as Howard Cosell and Bud Selig — non-athletes who nevertheless transformed our experience of sports.

For the theater lover: Although it contains wonderful reproductions of photographs, sheet music, playbills and posters, Michael Feinstein’s “The Gershwins and Me” is not just a collection of Gershwin memorabilia. As a young man, Feinstein befriended and worked for Ira Gershwin, and he has many of his own memories and stories to share about Ira and his brother George. Feinstein also includes a CD of his renditions of a dozen numbers from the Gershwin songbook.

For the home chef: In “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” authors Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi interpret the food of their native city. It’s a great cookbook, and not only because its recipes and photographs are so good. Jewish Ottolenghi and Muslim Tamimi, who are partners in several successful London restaurants, grew up on different sides of Jerusalem. What emerges from their combined effort is an appreciation of both the commonalities and differences in their culinary traditions, and in the cooking of the city’s other ethnic and religious communities. With Jewish-Arab relations in a disastrous state, we need these reminders that there are ways of coming together.


“The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg (288 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $24.99)


“Kin” by Dror Burstein (140 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $14)


“The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs” by Michael Feinstein (352 pages, Simon & Schuster, $45)


“Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy (304 pages, Twelve, $26.99)


“Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (320 pages, Ten Speed Press, $35)


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

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

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