Monthly Archives: June 2012

Dear Allegra Goodman,

The Cookbook Collector

I finished reading The Cookbook Collector on the eve of Facebook’s IPO. Normally the workings of the stock market and its boy wonders barely graze the

Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods

underbelly of my radar. But in your stunning novel, you took me on a dramatic and accessible tour through the tail end of the Nineties’dot.com heyday. Better yet, one of the best, brightest, and most bent on success CEOs is actually wonder woman, Emily Bach, MBA. If that weren’t reward enough for this feminist, by your story’s end, Emily turns out to be a Jewish woman!

Also making news while I was reading The Cookbook Collector was the ongoing struggle of book publishers and independent book sellers to remain relevant and profitable enough to stay in business even as self-publishing and monopolization threaten to displace them. But in your novel, old print books are highly prized items, sought after by the retired Microsoft millionaire, antiquarian bookstore owner George Friedman.

Old Cookbook

Rare old books also intrigue the grad student who works for him, Emily Bach’s younger sister Jess. You see to it that each sister has a love affair born in the context of her work. Emily is engaged to another ambitious and highly competitive dot.com CEO who turns out to be traitorous and whom you severely punish. But you reward Jess and George when they fall in love, their relationship nourished by the beautiful well-used cookbooks they explore. Admittedly biased by the fact that I’m a writer, I interpreted their lovely wedding as your endorsement of books over bucks. Bravo!

Rain

So how do you make a novel about business into a literary triumph and a page turner? It’s partly your scope which is broad enough to include not only the dot com bubble, the events and aftermath of 9/11, two love stories, and a few Bialystok Jews and environmentalists, but it’s also your prose and pacing. You layer precise and often wryly comic insights and images in such a way as to repeat important themes without seeming repetitive. In your opening paragraph you violate the rule cautioning writers not to begin their novels with descriptions of the weather by describing a September rainstorm in Silicon Valley. After a brief lovely word picture of the storm, you add, “Like money the rain came in a rush, enveloping the bay, delighting forecasters, exceeding expectations, charging the air.” The two words, Like money turn your initial paragraph from a beautifully phrased weather report to a reminder of the rush of the quick buck and how, like rain, money can stop coming and give way to devastating drought.  This comparison, unexpected itself, also reminded this reader of the danger of unrealistic expectations. After reading this one crucial paragraph, I was eager to meet the characters who people a world where money rains down and then, perhaps, dries up. And you keep up the pace, firing big ideas at us in few well-chosen words and encapsulating big moments in swift-moving prose-poetry.

Kaaterskill Falls

The Family Markowitz

I look to your books for inspiration and I find it in this novel just as I found it in The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls. Those two very good earlier works of yours

legitimized my urge to someday write a book centered on specifically Jewish themes and characters. They were among the novels that moved me to write The Bones and the Book.  But The Cookbook Collector becomes an overtly “Jewish novel” only near the end when Emily and Jess discover that their long dead mother was Jewish. This unexpected plot twist illustrates how a writer can integrate Jewish characters and themes into stories that, like modern American Jews, have finally escaped ghettos and restricted neighborhoods and now turn up almost everywhere.

I also appreciate your affectionate and empathic treatment of the Bialystok Jews whom you might have satirized for their messianic zeal, gender bias, and old fashioned get-ups. But instead you focus on their talent for community building and ancestral memory, not to mention fund raising. For it is the Bialystok rabbi who makes his initial investment, not in the market but in Jess, a human being who needs a loan. I found it extremely ironic that his relatively small investment of $1,800, a meaning-laden number in the Jewish tradition, pays off not only spiritually, but financially as well.

The Cookbook Collector is a wonderful read and has already broadened the scope of my next book. Again, bravo and thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Deborah Feldman,

Unorthodox

Oy vey! That’s what I kept exclaiming as I read your moving memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Story of My Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Thank you for having the guts and persistence to get it published. Remember how you had to hide books under your bed or in your underwear drawer because

Girl Reading Max Hendrick Sketch

Hasidic girls aren’t supposed to read anything but their prayer books? Well, Ms. Feldman, I bet many of those girls are now stashing copies of Unorthodox under their beds or burrowing them among their heavy high socks and panties. For some of these teens, unwitting hostages in a repressive and cloistered community, your memoir will be a validation of their own “unacceptable” perceptions. And for a few of these same girls it will be a road map out.

In Unorthodox, the devil really does show his medieval misogynistic face in the details. Who knew that according to the Talmud, Rachel, righteous wife of renowned Rabbi Akiva, stuck pins in her legs to prevent her skirt from billowing up and exposing those legs?

Marilyn Monroe-Skirt Billowing

Or that girls at your high school are treated to a daily “modesty lecture” where this masochistic act is cited as exemplary? Or that married women, have to prove they are no longer menstruating/“impure” by submitting numerous unstained white cloths to a rabbi for inspection? I found your detailed critique sadly instructive.

Your gift for description sneaks me into the closed world you fled. So I’m with you on that day you’re happy to be sent home from school to modify your dress: “The moment when the spring sunshine hits my face is like the taste of Zeidy’s Kiddush wine, my first breath of fresh air a long slow tingle down my throat.” And your depiction of your relationship with yourself and with God after your flight from Hasidism reads like poetry. “I have come home to myself, and God is no longer a prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.”

Your family history needs no embellishment to be prime memoir material. Your lesbian mom left the Hasidic world without you, and your dad is developmentally disabled  and mentally ill. Being raised by your ideologue grandfather, your Holocaust-scarred grandmother, and your materialistic and controlling aunt was, at best, a poor fallback position. With no reading of books or newspapers, no TV, little contact with male age mates, and a lot of negative and erroneous information about your body, how were you supposed to be prepared to have sex let alone enjoy it? And those pre-marital sex ed sessions you endured were worse than useless. No wonder you didn’t know where your vagina was and, when your husband proved similarly clueless, no wonder there was literally no there there for either of you. Your frankly clinical account of your efforts to figure out your own body is chilling.

Hasidic Bride En Route to Wedding

In fact, a lot of what you say about life as a Williamsburg Satmar is disturbing. And seeing our stained Jewish linens billowing in the wind feeds my fear of anti-Semitism, an ongoing threat. A modern Reform Jewish feminist, I still feel guilty when writing Jewish bad guys and gals because I hear my mother’s whispered warnings sounding in my ears. Her whispers became shouts when I was writing The Bones and the Book because not all the Jews in that novel behave well. Some are downright criminal. With my dead mother kicking up such a ruckus in my head, it was very hard for me to implicate even those fictional characters, so I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you to expose the community where you grew up. But even my mother would acknowledge that, kept hidden, soiled laundry eventually reeks.

Bravo! You speak for other women rendered powerless in a community of damaged men who see women primarily as breeders and domestic servants. Inspired by you and other female Jewish authors, I’ll continue to mine our rich tradition and tell women’s versions of the stories I find there.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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