Tag : fiction

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June 12, 2018 by

Isolated Mothers, Searching for Miracles

The reader knows by page one of Queen for a Day that Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son is autistic, but if anyone told her, she wouldn’t listen, because she doesn’t want to know—until at last Danny’s behavior becomes so strange even she can’t ignore it. After her son’s diagnosis, Mimi finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, she and her fellow mothers exist in a state of perpetual crisis, “normal” life always just out of reach. In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, we meet these women, each a conflicted, complex character dreaming of the day she can just walk away.

Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants, housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering, competed with each other for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women living under enormous pressure. Maxine Rosaler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the true-life experiences that led her to write this book. (more…)

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June 6, 2018 by

What Did Your Grandparents Do to Mine?

The HeirsAfter breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century—even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.

As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn of the millennium.

Eleanor starts flirting with the soccer coach, ignoring her 12-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when, messing up several games, he becomes the team pariah. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions: For how many generations can guilt carry on? And: What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?

Hawthorne, the author of the award-winning Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and seven other books about business, consumers and social issues, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her journey from fiction to fact and then back again. 

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May 30, 2018 by

Sadie Schuster’s Magic Love Knots (Part 2 of “Sadie in Love”)

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 96-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.  

Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Sadie Schuster sold love knots, hope wrapped in a schmattah, fifty cents. A lot of money in 1913, but hope never came cheap, especially when it came from Sadie Schuster. “You think this business makes me rich?” she asked her customers. “I do it to make people happy. The material alone costs me forty cents.”

She learned her magic tricks in Poland, where she and Fivel lived before coming to New York, two greenhorns, just married, and talked about love knots as though there really was magic in this world, and only she, of all the Jews in New York who came from Minsk, from Riga and Lublin, Budapest and Warsaw, knew how to put them together.

It was a secret, she said, passed from mother to daughter. Her own daughter, Yivvy, who ran a second-hand shop, and worked the cash register nights at the Second Street Cafeteria, didn’t believe in love or magic.  Take it or leave it, Sadie Schuster was the only love knot person in New York City.

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May 23, 2018 by

A Novel Imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lesser-Known (and Jewish) Love Affair

In 1937 Hollywood, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s star is on the rise—while literary wonder boy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career is slowly drowning in booze. But the once-famous author, desperate to make money penning scripts for the silver screen, is charismatic enough to attract the gorgeous Miss Graham, a woman who exposes the secrets of others while carefully guarding her own. Like Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby, Graham has meticulously constructed a life far removed from the poverty of her childhood in London’s slums. And like Gatsby, the onetime guttersnipe learned early how to use her charms to become a hardworking success; she is feted and feared by both the movie studios and their luminaries.another side of paradise

A notorious drunk famously married to the doomed Zelda, Fitzgerald fell hard for his “Shielah” (he never learned to spell her name), who would stay with him and help revive his career until his tragic death three years later.

Working from Sheilah’s memoirs, interviews, and letters, Sally Koslow revisits their scandalous love affair and Graham’s dramatic transformation in London in her new novel, Another Side of Paradise, out this month from HarperCollins.

Koslow, the former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine and author of four other novels, including acclaimed international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to uncover the secrets of Graham’s past—and why.

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April 12, 2018 by

The Miscreants

Art by Michaela MacPherson

(Art by Michaela MacPherson, michaelamacpherson.com)

I played Bach’s Prelude in C Major on Mrs. Z.’s piano this afternoon. Mrs. Z. is our downstairs neighbor, and she’s old, maybe 70. Since we don’t have a piano at home, she lets me come over on weekdays to practice on her crumbling baby grand. Her husband died two years ago, in 1945, and their children all left for Palestine with their spouses and kids. She rarely leaves the house anymore because of her Parkinson’s, so I’m pretty much the only person she talks to most days. I sang while I played, Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, just like Miss Weil showed me during yesterday’s lesson. Hear how Bach’s Germanic harmonies sit perfectly underneath Gounod’s French melody. Baroque and Romanticism perfectly entwined, reckless emotion and meticulous structure in flawless symbiosis. I sat still for a long time, quietly contemplating the two partitures in front of me.

“Rikki, come wash up for Shabbos,” Mama’s voice called me through the open window. I kept playing until I reached the end of the piece. The last chord rang out while I kept my foot on the pedal. I held my breath until every last decibel had disappeared into the ether.

“Coming!” I yelled out, and began packing my notes into a manageable stack of papers I could stuff into my bag. Mrs. Zaitlin was having her tea in the other room. Unlike my family, she does not keep the Shabbos. Keep the Shabbos. That’s what we call the strange practice, perhaps for lack of a more appropriate term. I’ve always found it peculiar, to speak of keeping a day. When I was younger Papa would tell me that we do it to prevent the day from slipping through our fingertips. To stop time: to watch it from the outside looking in, as if life were a snow globe or a film.

Mrs. Z. used to be more religious, back when her family was still around, but now she says offhandedly observance is a tribal practice and is not easily maintained on one’s own. At first Papa would invite her to have the three Shabbos meals with us right after her youngest son left, but she’d always decline, and eventually he stopped asking.

In addition to being a pious Jew, Papa is also a Zionist. So are Mrs. Z.’s children. They left their mother alone in the withering Jewish quarter of our Transylvanian town so they could go live an ideological ideal in the Promised Land. Her youngest son and his newlywed wife packed up their belongings last summer: blouses and a white tie; a sterling silver, handmade candlestick set that had been in the family for generations; a rusted shovel he thought would prove useful in working the land. I snuck into their kitchen and asked him to stay, please, I’d said, your mother is sick, your wife is pregnant, and you don’t even believe in God, so why go there? He ignored me and they left. His mother was rendered a sort of adult orphan, but as they were her children it was hard for them to see.

I swung my bag over my shoulder and stepped into the kitchen to say goodbye.“Ah gutten Shabbos.” I spoke the familiar parting words, leaned over and kissed the age spots on her soft and wrinkled cheek. Her skin was thin as wrapping paper.

Ah gutten Shabbos, my dear.” She cupped my face in her trembling palms and pressed it close to hers.

Later that evening, after we’d finished eating and reciting the food blessing, I excused myself from the table, saying I’d forgotten something at Mrs. Z.’s house. I’d been doing this every day for the past month and a half, finding some excuse to get away and slip into her home once the sun had set. This practice demanded a certain degree of stealth on Fridays, to ensure my parents didn’t ask any prying questions.

Once I made it to her apartment, I made sure all the curtains were shut. I walked through her three-room home and ended up in the bedroom, where Mrs. Z. lay waiting for me in her large antique bed. I walked over to her night-stand in the dark. On it lay a Yiddish translation of Gulliver’s Travels. A small medicine jar. A tall glass of water with a straw. I lifted the box of matches that lay by a dark blue candle, it’s color barely visible by the slivers of moonlight that shone through an obstinate crack in the drapes. It was a simple task, but one she could no longer manage herself, lacking sufficient control over the muscles and joints in her fingers. As I removed a match from the box a familiar chill raised the hair on my forearms. I sensed with a formidable surety that somehow Papa could see me, about to severely defy the Jewish code of law. I struck it quickly. The flame grew before my eyes as I brought it towards the wick and lit the candle.

A warm glow appeared by her bedside. It overpowered the moonlight and illuminated our faces in flickering light and dancing shadows. She smiled at me and placed the book in her lap, opened it to where the bookmark lay in one of the first chapters. She scanned the lines with her finger until she found her place. I made a half turn away from her and waved the burning match around until it extinguished itself in a cusp of smoke, closed the matchbox and returned it to the nightstand. With a wave and good-night I exited towards the living room.

I paused to look around before leaving. There were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, their titles, all of which I knew by heart, obscured in the darkness. Leather-bound editions of the Babylonian Talmud and Maimonides commentaries; Bibles and Siddurs, prayer books; two shelves devoted entirely to Kabbalah teachings. Silent, dust-covered mementos of her deceased husband. He had always kept the faith alive in their house, defying his heretic wife. She stopped attending synagogue long ago, preferred to spend that time taking walks through the city or playing music at home.

Mrs. Z. used to be  more religious, back when her family was  still around, but now she says offhandedly that observance is a tribal practice, and is not easily maintained on one’s own.

Once, years ago, she went to Paris. She told no one but her husband and reappeared, weeks later, smelling of for-eign perfumes, a vibrant green scarf wrapped around her hair and tall, gold-studded leather boots on her feet. No one she knew had traveled farther than neighboring Hungary, where they would often go visit family before the War. When she returned, she became the talk of the town, her name spoken askance in whispers at synagogue and overheard in the women’s conversations at the market.

She told me stories of her adventures, over tea when I took breaks from practicing. The concerts she’d attended at the Opéra Bastille, how she had met Debussy and Satie; had approached them audaciously and shaken their hands, introduced herself in what I imagined to be impeccable French but in reality was just miscellaneous bits and pieces of the language. She used the proper accent when pronouncing their names, pucker-ing her lips on the vowels. She spoke animatedly and raised her hands as they trembled, carried them up and sideways to illustrate the tale. It was as though she was shaking them on purpose: jazz hands invoking the zeitgeist of the 20s.

In bed that night I looked out the window at the stars. I saw Orion’s Belt and the Great Bear. I recognized Betelgeuse, the star closest to Earth, except for the sun. My younger sister was asleep on the other side of the room, her breathing soft and regular, pacing my own inhalations and exhalations. The starlight would suffice, I thought. I reached under my bed, took out papers and a pencil, and started to draw with a feverish imperativeness.

I drew dense forests and woodland creatures from the basin of my subconscious. Awake, I dreamt in outlines and sketches of trees. A hare was caught in the air mid-jump. It spread its paws forward and they merged with the bark and the leaves. Swirling upwards, you couldn’t tell where fur ended and flora began. Grey pencil marks invoked shades of green and brown, a dawning purple sky. In lieu of a sun, a flickering flaxseed candle dripped tears of wax into the lake.

I woke up the next morning, graphite on my fingertips and the pencil clutched in my hand. Mama stood in the doorway. As per usual, she’d come to wake me up to eat. Our eyes met across the room and I saw that she’d already noticed the pencil in my hand, already registered my heresy and connected it to my time spent with Mrs. Z.

Two days later, I came home from school to find a black Steinway piano perched up against a wall in our dining hall. I walked over and gently fingered the keys. I stood upright at its far left; I didn’t want to sit down and validate its existence just yet.

“Now you can practice at home.” Mama’s smiled a smile that ended at her cheekbones, pursed her lips and clasped her hands to her chest.

“Yes. Finally. Yes, thank you so much,” I said flatly.

Tamar Ben-Ozer is an editor at The Jerusalem Post. She recently completed a degree in vocal performance and writes and sings in Tel Aviv. This story was written “in loving memory” of her grandmother, Masha Ben-Ozer Shomroni. 

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January 20, 2015 by

Sweet Charity

“Do you know Aimee Rothstein is dying?”

My heart flutters as if tickled. Or maybe it is only the lamb nuzzling my palm as it searches for food.


“Cancer,” Penny says. “Bone cancer, they’re thinking. How old do you figure she is, anyway? I’m guessing she’s around our age.”

Aimee Rothstein dying. The news can’t be trusted. Does it fit with my impressions of Aimee, the few times I’ve met her before? No, the diagnosis is not in sync with my concept of any young mother. No we all look life in the eye, unblinking, while dressing our babies, feeding them, planning their next days and years.

The lamb gives up and returns to its own mother, a sloe-eyed ewe. Deprived of the comforting moistness of the animal’s breath on my skin, I step away from the pen and search for the children. Penny’s son is standing near a vending machine that will not give up its feed, while my daughter edges too close to a ram standing on the other side of the gate.

“Shoshie, move away!” I cry, throwing up my hands to ward off an assault.

It’s a futile gesture, but I get my daughter’s attention.

My glance lingers until Shoshanna steps back. Only then do I call out to Penny, “How do you know?”

“Her husband phoned school the other day to talk with the principal. I took the call,” she fires back. As she rummages in her purse to find more quarters for the feeder, she adds, “He started weeping, Sarah. Then he told me the whole story. It’s so sad.”

“You shouldn’t gossip,” I scold. “I don’t know Aimee well enough to hear this news.”

Penny’s eyes go wide. “I just assumed Shoshie and her daughter were in the same kindergarten class.”

“It’s a big school,” I remind her. “And no, we hardly know them at all.”

It is startling to see Aimee Rothstein in the park a week later, as I guess I’d expected illness to hide her away. Yet here she is, looking much the same as ever as she sits on a bench in a red cape, the hood falling in scalloped folds across both shoulders. An elderly woman wearing a gray woolen coat tries to cope with Aimee’s daughter on the swings nearby.

I briefly hope Penny has exaggerated Aimee’s story. Since hearing the news, I have found myself imagining the horror of calculating days leading to death in the same way most people count down to birthdays. And then my thoughts always veer off onto one shameful, unutterable truth, Thank God it’s not me.

I notice Aimee’s child is acting particularly rotten to the elderly woman. With each swing, she kicks at pebbles under her feet and throws dust. Yet imagine what the child’s going through daily, and forgive, I remind myself. A wind comes up, clanging a red sign tacked to the fence that lists SAFETY RULES. Useful warnings if you know how to read. But what about my own daughter Shoshie, struggling with her phonics? And what about this Rothstein girl? Aimee’s daughter had to constantly hear adults whispering about, in slightly hysterical tones. All these strange words had to be knocking like wind chimes over her head: malignancy, terminal, radiation. No child could begin to guess why such fierce winds were blowing, or from which direction.

Shoshie had abandoned me at least fifteen minutes ago for her friends at the Tower, but now I need her.

“Shoshie?” When I crook my finger, my daughter pivots from the Tower’s second level to the ground, and reluctantly comes over.

“Isn’t that girl in your class?”

Shoshie eyes her then declares, “No.”

“But she’s in kindergarten too, right?”

Shoshie shrugs, begins to rub at her nose.

“Don’t pick,” I say. “Here.” I retrieve a crumpled tissue from my coat pocket and hand it to her. Then I add, “She must be in the afternoon class,” I say. “You should invite her to play fort. C’mon.”

As we walk over, Aimee Rothstein glances at me in a curious way.

“Hi. I think our girls might know each other from school.”

“Your daughter is in Mrs. Harrison’s class?” Aimee asks.

“No,” I say. “She goes in the morning. But we’ve seen you around, maybe at the library reading program? Anyway, my daughter wanted to come over and say hi. Shoshie.” I squint up my eyes to prompt. “Can you say hi to —?”

“Emma,” Aimee offers. “That’s her Grandma Lyla with her.”

“Emma, of course,” I say, nodding to Lyla at the same time. “Do you want to play with Shoshie and her friends, Emma? They’re building a fort by the Tower.”

Emma’s ready to accept my invitation. She shoves off the swing, then moves a few steps away from her grandmother’s oversized shadow in the dirt. With Aimee’s nod, our children run to the Tower together. I smile too then ask, “Does your daughter take a dance class at the Academy?”

“She has.”

“That’s where I’ve seen you before,” I lie. “Well, it’s great to meet you. Maybe they’ll be in dance together next term.”

Aimee tucks one lip under the other, doesn’t respond.

“You know,” I continue, as casually as if I’d just come up with the idea. “Why don’t our girls get to know each other before the new season starts? How about a play date at my house? Your daughter’s welcome any time.”

Aimee doesn’t reply, but her mouth goes small. I can guess what she’s worried about, recompense, and so I say, “We’ll just try it one time and see how it goes. You’d be helping me out. I don’t think my daughter will know anyone else in dance next year.”

Aimee’s breath comes fast, and I wonder how much her illness has already advanced. Yet then she reaches for her purse and says, “It’s a very nice offer. Let’s exchange numbers.”

When the bell rings, a barking Beardsley gets to the door first. He’s followed by my daughter, dancing barefoot in her anticipation. Both have to wait for me to turn the lock and then Beardsley wedges his nose up onto the screen, terrifying Emma and Grandma Lyla.

“Down Beardsley,” I scold. As I pull him back by the collar, I try to explain, “He’s harmless, really, useless as a guard dog. He mostly patrols for squirrels.”

Still, Grandma doesn’t take her eyes off our St. Bernard as she steps into the hall with her charge. Emma looks as if she’s confronted yet another wolf in this strange forest. I force a laugh to calm everyone down.

“Do you like costumes, Emma?” I ask as Shoshie pushes past me to smother her newfound friend in a hug. “Shoshie has plenty.”

Emma nods and they head upstairs, ready for a session of make-believe to see if the friendship will prove real and true. I’m left behind with Grandma, who demands in the heavily accented words of someone whose first language is presumably not English, “What time you want me back?”

My glance falls to the car keys she’s holding. Truthfully, I’m relieved not to have to play hostess, even if this nervous visitor deserves all my attention and concern. More than likely, this woman will be burying her own child soon; laying out clothes for her funeral much as she did when sending her off to school decades ago. That’s her cursed fate and a reality so unbearable that, this close, I find myself full of irrational superstitions. No I’m not proud of these thoughts, but I’m normally lousy with the elderly and so terrified to invite into my home this sad-eyed woman who carries about her smells of old age and imminent tragedy.

“Let’s say two o’clock?” I say. “That will give the children some time together.”

“Two, yes.”

Still eyeing the dog, Grandma Lyla backs down our bricked walkway. I latch the screen, release my hold on Beardsley. Upstairs, I can hear my daughter chattering, “You be the witch and I’ll be the princess.”

“You girls okay?”

In reply, I hear a clicking of play heels, then Shoshie’s face appearing behind stair railings. Her red-brown hair is twisted in a messy bun and she is wearing her pink princess gown.

“We’re good.”

“You let Emma wear whatever costume she wants, witch or princess,” I instruct. “ Now, are you girls hungry for a snack or do you want to wait?”

There is a rustle of netted skirts and then a blonde-haired witch comes alongside my daughter. Emma’s chosen the darker costume, but I’m guessing she’s the cherubic one when it comes to coloring and temperament. Still she seems so unsteady in her black sequined getup and inch-high play shoes, I warn, “No heels on the stairs, Emma. It’s not safe.”

Even as I say the words, practically trill them, the girl’s lips start to scrunch up with worry she’s done something wrong.

“Well, aren’t you hungry?” I ask, making a joke. It works. Emma’s face relaxes even if her tongue continues to poke about in her cheek.

“I had lunch,” she informs me.

“Okay. I’ll just make snacks. Go play.”

The girls kalump-kalump back to Shoshie’s room. When I leave the chilled hallway, Beardsley trots obediently behind. As I push open the door leading to the kitchen, I’m feeling proud and why not admit it, if only to myself? My offer to watch Emma has to be of real comfort to Aimee while she’s struggling. In this house, we will nurture through normalcy, a routine playdate — and no hint of hushed conversations, tears being wiped on sleeves whenever a child enters a room. None of that for Emma today.

I open the refrigerator and retrieve a milk carton, give a brief sniff to make sure the milk is fresh. Yes, today, I’d done it right. I’d helped people and not in my usual ineffectual ways of being charitable, surrendering to phone solicitors or signing up for fundraisers that offered up hefty tax deductions as incentives.

I reach into the pantry and then rush a bit while I spread peanut butter and jelly onto crackers, not sure how long everyone’s amiable moods will last. I pour milk into two Sippy cups and set them on the table.

“Girls, snacks!”

As I head upstairs, I notice Shoshie has closed her bedroom door against all intruders, mainly me. Behind the door, I can hear her cry out, “Scribble Scrabble!”, and Emma’s laughter in response, a sweet baa-baa riff.

“Girls, snacks,” I repeat and push on the door. As I do, my glance shifts to the child-size mezuzah we’d hung on Shoshie’s doorframe, a gift from her baby-naming, and again, I think a bit irrationally, yes see, Emma safe’s here.

They are on Shoshie’s bed. My daughter stands in full princess regalia, holding a marker in her left hand. Emma sits cross-legged near the pillow, markers held in both fists. Lines of blue, green and yellow trail out along the sheets. What they’ve drawn is not clear. But to me, the lines look like chalk marks used to sketch victims’ bodies at crime scenes and so, of course, I scream.

Shoshi just glares, furious that I’ve walked in and ruined their fun. Emma, however, launches into a volley of tears and wails. Downstairs, Beardsley barks in nervous accompaniment.

“Emma, don’t. It’s okay,” I mumble.

I close my eyes, scribble scrabble all those lines from sight. Remind myself about non-toxic markers, how they’re made to erase with a sponge.

“All right. It’s time for a snack. I think we need a break,” I announce. Using the door knob for balance, I turn to leave. Behind me, I hear one last loud sniff from our guest and Shoshie’s bell-toned reassurances. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”

She needs to cry, I think. Let her cry, Shoshie. The sheets are probably a total loss but all this is fixable. In her home, nothing is fixable anymore. So have pity.

I return to the kitchen and glance at the clock in an entirely different mood than moments ago. It’s not even twelve-thirty. I have an hour and a half more to go on this play date. The girls trail in a few minutes later, back in their clothes. I can tell Shoshie’s already forgotten the incident upstairs, but Emma hesitates when she notices my gaze upon her.

“Here, Emma, sit,” I say softly and pull out a chair at the table. The girl eyes the plate of crackers then pretends to be fascinated by the lamp hanging overhead. One, two, three, I watch her mouth as she counts the bulbs.

“Emma, is anything wrong?”

“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly,” Emma whispers to Shoshie, avoiding me altogether.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Is there anything else I can get you —?”

Beardsley has found his way under the table and my daughter pries open a cracker sandwich, offers it to him.

“Ahh, you’re so gross!” she screams as the dog’s tongue licks her palm.

For the first time since she’s entered the kitchen, I hear Emma laugh, that baa-baa riff. I’m startled into action. Maybe this play date can be saved, after all.

I grab the dog’s collar. Showtime, Beardsley.

“Do you want to pet him?” I offer. “He’s really gentle.”

It’s not so much an invitation as a bribe and Emma squints, rightly suspecting my intentions. Still she rises from her chair and holds out her hand. I grab her palm, lay it on the brown furry tufts between his ears.

“This is his favorite spot,” I confide. “But he can’t get to it himself. He loves when someone helps.”

Scritch, scritch. Emma’s fingers start to move and Beardsley pants his appreciation. His jowls pool with saliva and then he can’t help himself; he starts to drip.

Shoshie bursts out laughing. With a smile, I release the dog and pull a tissue from my jeans pocket.

“Let’s make a potion,” I say. “Dog drool’s the first thing we’ll need. Come here, sweetie.”

I pivot the dog’s massive jaw into my hand, and wipe. Startled, he backs off with a growl. Emma steps back and not willing to lose the moment to her fear, I retrieve another tissue, turn to my daughter.


Shoshie takes the tissue, snorts like an elephant at a watering hole.

“We’ll grease down a bowl with dog’s drool and kid’s snot,” I cackle in my best witch’s imitation. I drop both tissues on the counter, rummage through cabinets. “And what else, what else?”

I open my refrigerator and see items I’ve let sit for days, even weeks, past their labeled expiration dates. A pint of grape tomatoes, paunchy in their skins, a browning head of lettuce. Two slightly cracked hard-boiled eggs, a quart of milk.

“Here. I’ve got smelly eggs, leaking tomatoes, rotting skull lettuce.”

Both girls start to giggle, enchanted with my sorcerer’s turn. Not even a costume nearby to help in the transformation, so they’re impressed.

“And how about some nice, sour milk to blend it all together?”

“No! No milk!”

I turn to see Emma’s tongue working her cheek like a thermometer.

“My Grandma says sour milk makes you sick. If it’s bad, throw it out!”

Sick, that word. How fast noises in the room fly away with that word.

Emma’s eyes move frantically, to find Beardsley. But no longer the center of attention, he’s left the room. It’s Shoshie who comes over to dab with her finger at a few milk drops pitched into the table slats.

“How does milk get sour anyway?” my daughter asks.

“You don’t know when it happens!” Emma shrieks before I can reply. She tries to control herself, as if someone has warned her not to behave this badly in someone else’s home. Still her fingers clench, her cheeks purple in anger.

“You can’t see anything! But it makes you real sick if you drink it. You could die!”

You could die. It is a phrase she understands beyond all other words that swirl lazy as dust motes in the air. She’s found them in her mother’s closets, under her bed.

Between lavender-scented sheets that, despite all their washings, can’t hide the stink of illness.

I look at the milk already poured into pink plastic cups, focus on its whiteness in contrast, how pure, how clean. And I am surprised by this child’s fierce insistence that the world only gives us something else: decay, decay.

“You’re right, you wouldn’t want to drink milk that’s gone sour,” I manage. “It doesn’t taste good. But milk’s not bad when it turns. It’s just…different.”

I take a glass from the cabinet and set it on the counter, start to pour until this new milk’s almost rimming the top, threatening to spill. I pick it up carefully and move to the girls at the table.

“It’s not sour. I was just playing before. Really, this milk is fresh from the refrigerator. You don’t have to be afraid that it’s going to change so fast you won’t know.”

Shoshie leans in, interested, but Emma’s face doesn’t give over a clue that she hears anything I’m saying.

“Come and taste it, you’ll see.”

My daughter inches forward, yet Emma’s glances stubbornly sweep about, frantic to unearth landmines buried in this kitchen. Sour or not? Death or not? And what is there to trust, after all, when only the unknowable can be counted on in this room, in our words, in the very air?

“Come here, Emma,” I repeat, my tone rock-steady. “Take a sip.”

Her gaze shifts to mine, over the glass. When she blinks, an eyelash falls to her cheek. We are so close this is what I see, and I am nearly distracted.

But then I can feel her breath, wet, on my knuckles as her lips touch the rim.


Michele Merens is a Puffin Grant winner for her full-length play “The Lion’s Den.” She is also a member of the Dramatist’s Guild.


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October 7, 2014 by

The Lives Under the Stones

Illustration by Hila Peleg
Illustration by Hila Peleg

To get to the Jewish cemetery, you have to go underground. This is true for the living as well as the dead, although it’s been an eternity since fresh ground was broken here. Space was always at a premium; there are only so many bodies you can pack into two acres. They stacked them up like cheerleaders, one on top of the other, knees resting on shoulders or balanced precariously on skulls, but they still ran out of room. Gravestones cracked and toppled under the pressure. By the time the Emperor granted space outside the City, the skies were already darkening. When the storm was finally over, the handful of survivors floated away on floods of tears.

No matter how dry the day is, the stones sweat. Now that the rest of the City hovers a good five feet above, it’s like standing below sea level. Once past the entrance, you spiral down a long, rickety stairway. With each step, the metal squeaks and groans. At the bottom, you’re greeted by a ticket kiosk and a security guard. In the absence of live Jews, the local delinquents have taken to beating up dead ones. Keys, Swiss knives, even nail files are checked into tiny lockers to prevent further damage, although your presence, your mere breath, wreak havoc on the ancient stones. Stray sunbeams rain down, turning the dust mites and gnats into tiny, fluttering jewels, but for the most part, it’s dusk-dark down here. You grab onto details to stay afloat: sculpted colonettes and triglyphs, curlicue arabesques and rolled scrolls, praying hands and lions and fish. Every stone tells a story. The stories press against each other, fighting to be heard, but you only have time for one or two:

Rachel Blumele, 1632 – 1674, her name spelled out in a flower. Beloved wife and mother. A life lived in kitchens and bedrooms and trips to the market. She spent most of her adulthood tucked inside a cotton apron that became tighter and tighter with each pregnancy. After her fifth lying in, the faded check pattern stuck to her like a second skin. She was a good cook, able to turn barley noodles and potatoes into a feast. A magician with liver dumplings, she could make less than a pound of meat feed seven. She saved her best tricks for the market, where she bargained down even the toughest vendors with a look or a plea.

“Here you go, ten zlotys for the apples.”


“Really? I was sure you said ten. I only have twelve. Take two back.” A sigh like an expiring bird. “I guess little Sarai will have to go without.”

Unable to deprive little Sarai/Avram/Natan, the fruit seller/ dairy man/butcher almost always gave Rachel her price.

In another age, Rachel might have been an accountant or a lawyer. Or not. Maybe she loved her kitchen-bedroom-market life. Rachel and her husband regularly made love on their single bed, their slippery bodies somehow managing to click into the right place at the right time, like the workings of a clock. Her wig slept on the shelf so her auburn hair could be free for a few hours. Loose strands framed her prematurely aged face. Dead at 42, she could have been sixty. Eight pregnancies had loosened her taut belly. At night, when the five who had survived infancy were asleep on their bed on the other side of the curtain that divided the room, Rachel’s husband rolled over and massaged her stretched flesh. Stateless, this was his country, the only place he was at home. She smiled as his fingers slowly crept lower. Reluctant to intrude further, you move on.

Salome Karpele, 1744 – 1810. Like everyone else, the first thing you noticed was her beauty. Who could resist those pillowy, pink lips and heavy lidded black eyes? Not the Baron of Ludlovy, who plucked her out of the ghetto at fifteen and installed her in a suite of rooms in the center of town. Her attractions were obvious, but her thoughts were harder to read. After years of playacting, it was possible that Salome no longer knew what she was about.

You check her surroundings for clues. After all, we are what we buy, and Salome was a connoisseur. Only the finest Meissen ware graced her table, although she rarely had more than one guest and the Baron couldn’t distinguish Sevres from Chinese import. Her furniture was French, her pianoforte Italian. Tucked beneath her bed was the expensive magnifying glass she had ordered from the finest craftsmen in Amsterdam so she could check her diamantine face for any flaws. The shelves of her kitchen were lined with jars of the olive oil she used to soften her skin. The pantry was well-stocked with bottles of the finest champagne, which kept her hair bubbly.

At the Baron’s suggestion, she went to Church every Sunday where she prayed for the preservation of her beauty, but the Mysteries remained a mystery. She took communion once, out of curiosity, but felt nothing. How could a tasteless wafer be the body of God? And if Christ died for our sins, what was the point of confession? Only limbo made sense to her; neither Jew nor Gentile, wife nor servant, she knew what it was to float between worlds. She refused to be baptized for fear that the water would wash away the otherness that was as much a part of her appeal as her dainty pointed chin, thin ankles and torrents of wavy, red hair.

“Say something in Jewish,” the Baron would whisper in bed on the nights when his little soldier refused to stand to.

“Kush meer in toches.” “My little Jewess,” was her cue to release the moans that assured her commander that the battle had been won. Since beauty turned as quickly as fine wine, she was determined to acquire other skills to hold onto her Baron. Veiled, she snuck back into the ghetto from time to time to learn how to make the chicken soup and stuffed cabbage that had glued her parents together for so long. Belgian lace failed to hide her charms and groups of boys, fresh out of cheder, would inevitably fall into line behind her, announcing the arrival of the Sabbath bride.

Once she was safely inside her old home, she slipped a stained smock over her silk finery and sank her hands into mounds of grainy chopped liver and squishy small intestines. For a few, brief hours, she breathed in the smells of her childhood and bathed in the comfort of knowing her place. When the late afternoon sun lit up the crumpled paper stuffed into the hole in the window and the chipped brown paint on the walls, she knew it was time to go. Her mother looked away as Salome reached into her bag for a small purse and tucked it under the challah cover. Bending down, she kissed the top of her mother’s head and returned to the house that was not quite her home.

Kartoffeles and liver dumplings bought her some time, but as her thirties bore down on her like a rabid wolf, Salome knew the Baron would get restless. Since jealousy was the strongest aphrodisiac of all, she invented a lover. When she heard the tap of the Baron’s walking stick climbing the stairs to her landing, she had her maid undo her bodice and refasten the buttons out of order. She imprinted the ghost of her ghostly lover in the furniture by spraying cologne on the chairs and divan. The Baron’s nostrils flared the instant he stepped into the apartment. When he noticed the unhooked buttons on her bodice, he insisted on undoing the rest of them himself.

Hoping to catch her in flagrante, he increased his visits. And since no respectable patron arrived at his mistress’ lair empty handed, Salome became one of the wealthiest women in the quarter. When the Baron died and his heir ordered her to leave, it took a full week to pack up her things. Over time, her past was largely forgotten. To the new priest at St. Gundula, she was a respectable, gray-haired lady devoted to Christian charity, but her Jewish roots came out when she died and she was shoved into the old cemetery with the other members of her tribe.

You brush your fingers over the fish sculpted into Salome’s headstone. The rectangular block is capped by a fancy gable. A pair of scrolls frame praying hands. Praying for what, you wonder. Your curiosity twists and turns on itself like an insomniac unable to sleep — did Salome love the Baron, what happened to Rachel’s children?

Back on the crowded street above the cemetery, strangers bump into you, cursing you for getting in their way. “Kush meer in toches,” you whisper in a language you don’t speak as you head for a “kosher style” deli that serves liver dumplings to a non-existent Jewish community.

Amy Bitterman’s fiction has appeared in The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Kerem, Switchback, Jewishfiction.net, Poetica and other publications. She teaches at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark.

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July 15, 2014 by


Your first kiss will be on a dance floor. He will be taller than you; you won’t see it coming. You will be fifteen, thinking you will always remember this number for this reason. You will remember this number, but only because your Bubbe will call you in August saying, “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed —true or false?” and you will smile to yourself and think, false.

Your second kiss will be so bad that you will believe for the rest of senior year that you are gay. Whenever you doubt this, you will remember how soft and wet his lips were, how poorly aimed. For some reason you will remember your porch light, the dead moth flattened against it, above the mezuzah he doesn’t recognize. You will conclude that your eyes were open.

Your third kiss will be on a couch after Rosh Hashanah services your freshman year. It will move to a bed, but it will stay just a kiss. Because you expect this, you will not be grateful for it.

Your third kiss will kiss you two hundred times before you lose track.

Your fourth kiss will balance you on the railing of your best friend’s parents’ fire escape. It will be your nineteenth birthday. His breath will smell like cabbage. You will cry. He will knock on the bedroom door once you’ve closed it against him. You will be dialing your third kiss; your best friend will say, Leave her alone.

You will forget your fifth kiss. You will not remember his name. You will not remember his face, even.

Your sixth kiss will be thinner than you are, and you are thin. He will take off your bra as you stare at the ceiling, deciding not to help him with the clasp. He will walk you home at midnight —home to your third kiss, though he won’t know that. When he asks you out to coffee, you will say yes, but you won’t show.

Your seventh kiss will be a friend. You will set down your drink and slide your arms around his neck. You will act surprised when he kisses you, but you will not be surprised.

You will remember your eighth kiss as laughter, as tricky to pull off because neither of you could stop, as if you were kissing laughter. Your eighth kiss will disappoint you in all ways but this. In this way, he will be your favorite.

You will walk the perimeter of the club where you meet your ninth kiss, being watched. You will be watched because you feel powerful. You will feel powerful because you are watched. Your ninth kiss will take a lollipop out of his mouth next to the DJ booth. You will lick it.

You will want to forget that lollipop. You never will.

In your memory, you will mix up your tenth and eleventh kisses. One of them will be the son of a minister. One of them will be younger than you thought he was. One of them will call you beautiful.

The moment he walks in, your twelfth kiss will push you against your closet door. You will want this part to last forever, but it will only last a second.

Your thirteenth kiss will glide his hand along your hip for an hour before you turn to face him. He will say, How long were you going to pretend to be asleep? You will tell him he’s damn lucky you were just pretending.

You will be grateful then that your third kiss stayed just a kiss.

Your fourteenth kiss will be very late at night, and exquisite. You will walk to the bathroom on wobbly knees, wearing his boxers. As you are kissing him, you will be wanting to kiss him again. You will be dazed for days.

You will meet your fifteenth kiss early in the morning, as you are walking home on wobbly knees.

When it rains it pours, you will think.

Your sixteenth kiss will give you the flu. You will turn away the chicken soup he makes you from scratch. You will start to worry about the things you can get from the people you kiss.

Just before Passover, your seventeenth kiss will give you a neck- full of hickies. “Take your scarf off at the table,” your Bubbe will say. You won’t. You’ll touch the knot too often, feeling owned.

You will get tired of remembering kisses. You will skip some. You will feel bad about skipping some, feel bad that just remembering makes you tired. You will wonder if they remember you. You will wonder if it makes them tired.

You will believe that you could have loved your twentieth kiss. When you step off the karaoke stage, he will touch your hip and say You look good in a red dress, and for years afterward the memory of this will make you fidget. It will be a mistake, telling him about your third kiss. You will try to make up for it. You will leave a gift outside his door. Thumbtacks, because his walls are naked. Thumbtacks, so when he hangs pictures of other people, he will still see you.

Your twenty-third kiss will be older than you, and married. He will leave his wife for you, is what he’ll say. There will be a photo of you, eyelids shimmering, earrings dangling to your shoulders, not looking at the camera, because you are searching the party for him.

Your twenty-fourth kiss will be wearing a shirt that says Can I Help You? He will be Muslim, the president of the graduate student body, leading your first day of orientation. After his talk, you will slip through the swarm of students and lean against the podium at the front of the lecture hall. You will say, Yes. He’ll knit his eyebrows, and you’ll say, You can help me.

You will feel bad about your twenty-eighth kiss, because it will happen in a metro station below the earth as your twenty-seventh kiss is standing just above your head, waiting for you.

Over drinks, your thirtieth kiss will say: Never get involved with someone in your cohort. You will talk about your shared advisor until he leans on the bar and kisses you, doesn’t even hold your face in place. He will gather your gloved hand and his gloved hand together in his jacket pocket. Later, you will hate him for not grabbing your face. You will hate him for assuming you would sit there, frozen, and let him kiss you whenever he amassed the whiskey and the nerve.

A year after your thirty-first kiss, you will meet again at a Christmas party. He will be tall and smartly dressed, thick- framed glasses and a tie. You will be drunk. You will introduce yourself. You will think, Better to be the forgetter than the forgotten.

You will think that, but you will not be sure.

Your thirty-fifth kiss will walk to his bathroom for a condom. You’ll say no, for secret reasons of your own, but he’ll say, Not for that. Just to be extra safe, for any kind of touching. He’ll mean it. You’ll feel suspicious and suspected, dirty though the two of you are uncommonly clean.

You will start to lie. You will say you have kissed fewer people and slept with more.

Your thirty-seventh kiss will be thinner than you are, but you are not thin anymore. He will read to you from The Waste Land. You will rest your head on his shoulder and believe you could love him, but the feeling will fade by the end of the page. You will wonder what your third kiss is doing now.

You will realize with shock that your third kiss was only your third kiss.

Your fortieth kiss won’t know you’re somehow still a virgin. You will be too ashamed to tell him. You will be grateful to him after- ward, when he walks you home at midnight—home to your third kiss, you will have spent years imagining. Home to no one, really. 

You will sleep with your forty-first kiss the night you meet him, feeling the freedom more than the deed. You’ll assume he won’t call you again, and you’ll be right, but that will not have been the point.

You will know that your fiftieth kiss is your fiftieth kiss. You will feel like a Russian doll, your former selves stacked ever smaller and deeper inside you. You will let the smallest of these kiss this one, just this once. Her delighted surprise will make her foreign to you: a stranger. A lollipop from someone else’s tongue.

Your fifty-first kiss will want to hear about your third kiss. You will remember funneling thumbtacks into a glass jar, and you will know not to tell him. He will tell you his equivalent, instead. You won’t like it. You will kiss him in the dark foyer of your apartment, hoping even as you pull his head to yours that your memory of this moment will be monochrome, fuzzy and flat.

From a single photograph, your Bubbe will identify which of those men was your fifty-fourth kiss. It will comfort you, that you can still be so transparent to someone.

Your Bubbe will die then.

One week after the funeral, your housemate will move out and a boy you’ll believe you could love will move in. He will be the first Jewish boy you’ve looked at since your third kiss. You will stand in the supermarket aisle, comparing the labels on the one-a-day multivitamins you want to buy him. You will take a break from kissing for so long that he will finish the whole bottle. He will not be your fifty-fifth kiss.

Your fifty-sixth kiss will be a way of kissing your housemate. It will not be the way you want. It will taste bitter, though you will both drink peach martinis with sugar on the rim.

You will wonder if any kiss will ever be the way you want again. You will tell your fifty-eighth kiss that your contacts are just bothering you. Standing at the bathroom mirror, you will try to calculate the number of times your third kiss kissed you. Ten thousand, you will conclude. A hundred thousand.

You will try to remember every one. 

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July 15, 2014 by

Behaviors from Generation to Generation

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously criticized the way fat-free chocolate and decaf coffee have allowed us to rid ourselves of our guilt in today’s consumerist culture. Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom extends this dystopian vision in her new novel Textile (The Feminist Press, $18.95; translation by Dalya Bilu), where housing developments are built with no ecosystem, homes are established in brand-new apartments with no past, family members try to forget their ties to each other, and even the body undoes the effects of time.

Castel-Bloom weaves together a multivalent and sprawling text, set mostly in a lavish but hygienic Tel Aviv suburb and the isolation of upstate New York. The narrative focuses on a wealthy suburban family of four, who revolve around each other without real intimacy or responsibility.

At the heart is Mandy, Amanda Gruber, a judgmental mother figure absorbed in her own efforts to look younger and anesthetize herself while her son serves as a sniper in the Israeli army. Meanwhile, her genius husband, a somewhat famous scientist in Israel, is absorbed in efforts to invent a special suit to protect the body from terrorism. The outlier, and inheritor of the family pajama factory, is young Lirit, who just broke up with her boyfriend and is beginning to fill her mother’s shoes.

With a keen eye for class and gender politics, Textile moves from one character to another and still feels like a quick read. The author often takes us back three generations to trace the way languages and behaviors get passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. The text itself is multilingual, with bits of French and even Yiddish thrown in, and always in transition, reflective of the “third millennium” of history and critical of it. Everyone is an exile in some sense, trying on new tongues and wardrobes, trying to adapt to a new environment. 

Not only is the book international but it also feels slightly futuristic, in the way that the lifestyles of the elite always seem some- how at the cutting edge of civilization and closer to its end. The only control group in the experiment is Mandy’s inherited business, the Nighty-Night pajama factory, which serves the ultra-Orthodox community and stays unchanged, according to her mother’s dying wish.

Though the opening inscription from Leviticus warns us of the law of Shatnez, not to wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material, Textile explores what happens when worlds are forced to collide, how we try to protect ourselves and our bodies from life.

“History is a load. A burden,” an Israeli-expat masseuse tells the famous Israeli scientist on his first night in Ithaca, New York. And yet, “It’s no good being the first in a certain place. It gives rise to anxiety,” the scientist declares later in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Caught in contradiction and paradox, dissatisfied and desperate for happiness, and painfully incapable of communicating with each other, these characters shop or work or read or get plastic surgery instead. Underneath it are relentless pangs of guilt and shame and past trauma, triggered by layers of the very history and relationships they can’t bear.

Though Castel-Bloom, author also of Human Parts and Dolly City, has something of a reputation in Israel for daring and macabre themes, this book is both readable and relatable, a testament too to Bilu’s seamless translation. Textile is a sharp and engaging study of individual psychologies in an age of anxiety and consumerism, and Castel-Bloom is a masterful storyteller for these interesting times.


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July 15, 2014 by

From Russia, with Narrative

I read Panic in a Suitcase, the debut novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, by the ocean. At Brighton Beach, in fact—the fertile backdrop for this chaotic family saga. Reading the story on the shores of the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the sundry oddball siblings stalking across the streets and into the bodegas and bakeries of Brooklyn’s “little Odessa by the sea.”

The remarkable corporeality of this vision emerges thanks to the surprising and vivid detail in Akhtiorskaya’s writing. In this novel of hectic depths, a Russian Jewish family of dissatisfied misfits emigrates from Ukraine to Brooklyn. The characters are characters indeed, trying to make a home for themselves on Coney Island Avenue, “a street where cars had many lanes but still bunched together and tiny people on the tiny strips of sidewalk seemed to be crossing a desert.“

In the Nasmertov family, every generation is unsettled in its own way. There’s the linchpin, the distracted Pasha—a spacey poet of indeterminate success who can’t decide whether to remain in Ukraine or finally join his family in Brooklyn. His sister Marina, who is fired from her job cleaning houses when she gives pepperoni pizza to the son of her Orthodox employers. Pasha’s father (who had no temper to lose) and mother (“Prisoners in labor camps hadn’t exerted themselves at an equivalent level of intensity for such hopeless durations”). And his niece Frida —poor Frida: “Impressive applied to Frida meant that she wear a dress and sit at the table. No one expected smiles, precocious conversation, grace.” The Nasmertovs are never quite at home in Russian-speaking Brooklyn, yet are far removed from their family and friends in Ukraine, and perhaps farthest of all from the Manhattan right above them.

In Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a gorgeous graphic novel by the celebrated artist and author Anya Ulinich, the path from Russia to New York (and back, and forth) fades a bit more into the background of the winding story. Here we have one central protagonist —a warm, smart, wounded woman who emerges from years of cold or abusive relationships with two children and a lifetime’s worth of sexual confusion.

She embarks on a quest to find love (or is that sexual fulfillment? intimacy? stability?) while juggling single parenthood and a precarious yet successful enough career as a novelist. “I became a tourist in the country of men,” she writes, “or at least in the New York metropolitan area of men. I was like people who, when they felt like a road trip, shut their eyes, pointed to a random spot on a map, and drove…”

Lena’s insecurities and narcissism are deeply sympathetic. She berates herself—“What is it with you immigrants? Why are you so afraid of yourselves? … For all your proclaimed affection for Dostoevsky, you’re an excellent immigrant child, Finkle, a.k.a. a smart drone!” Lena traces her life in relationships, marks time by counting men, and avoids her work by browsing on OkCupid.

The imperfect, floundering characters in these two novels are deeply relatable. They leave you with the distinct impression that each person, each family, is no more or less unhinged and absurd than any other. In the midst of these distinctive migrations, it is the emotional familiarity of these characters that makes each one so compelling.

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