A young boy is taken in by a housemaid after losing his parents in Transylvania during World War II. The boy sees a young girl lose her parents later, and he helps her find a train to go back home and helps her bury her parents. The girl, who winds up at a family friend, tells them about the boy who helped her and that he is Jewish too. Her new father goes and finds the boy and takes him into his house, as well.
The boy is sent shortly to the States where he joins the Satmar community in New York. The girl stays in Europe where she is raised in her adopted family. Her name is Mila (for Blima) and her “sister” is Atara. We follow their formative years, as they navigate a very restrictive lifestyle and deal with an especially overbearing and domineering father. Atara, in particular, is unsatisfied with the lifestyle and dreams of a future where she is free to read and to learn and to live a more free life. The story takes us through the next fifty or so years of their lives, outlining events and changes they experience. There is quite a bit of detail about the father, Zalman, and his intolerant outlook, and there is even a nice focus on mamzerus, or bastard-child. There is also a lot of discussion about the Satmar Rebbe’s hypocritical and cowardly secret deal with Kastner and other Zionists to secure passage for himself out of war-torn Europe while continuously disparaging Zionism and, more problematically, encouraging his followers to stay in Europe to meet what he had to have known would be a certain death.
I didn’t like the novel. I didn’t like the WWII setting, I didn’t like the super-extreme father, and I found the book just slightly too critical of Orthodoxy, or Satmar in particular. The father came across as a real monster, and there were very few redeeming features about the community, the Rebbe, and especially the father. I thought there could be one or two nice things to say about the lot of them, and I found the book somewhat cruel in that it made it difficult to see any positive in that world.
I felt the father character was just a bit over the top, and I think that degree of extremism is unusual even for Satmar. I don’t come from a Satmar background so I can’t be too sure, but my sense is the character was something of a caricature, representative of very few even within the most isolated, fringe groups. For example, he goes batty and beats his daughter (maybe eight years old?) for driving a bike on Shabbos. I don’t think this experience reflects anything the author has actually seen, but is more of a hypothetical, nightmarish scenario dreamt up. This subject is especially sensitive for me because I have witnessed a lot of this kind of religious extremism myself and I spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing, yet I still think this is just beyond the pale even for Satmar. I want to think they’re much better than that, and I didn’t appreciate such a consistently negative, almost villainous role for Zalman.
The book is also not that well-written. While some pages show promise, paragraphs start and stop rather abruptly, and there is no steady flow to the novel. Some of the writing is just dull and uncaptivating, and, as I’ve pointed out, is cliché by relying on a WWII setting, and also portrays that world in an overly-negative manner. For an author’s first English-language novel it was all right, but it was by no means amazing. It didn’t do it for me, but if you find these topics interesting, you might appreciate it.
From a particularly touching scene, where the children are doing kapparos (atonements) shortly after Mila joined her adopted family:
On the eve of the Day of Atonement, Hannah circled a rooster above the boys’ heads, three times, then she circled a hen over the girls’ heads, three times. She lowered the cackling fowl to the ground. “Place your foot on its neck,” Hannah coached Mila.
Mila shook her head, no.
“Surely you remember this from home,” Hannah said. “You need not press on it. Just brush your foot against its head and repeat after me: You to death and I to life . . . do it.” Then, softly: “You don’t have to say it aloud, child, but think it to yourself.”
Tears filled Mila’s eyes.
Atara cried out: “Why does the chicken have to die?”
“So the children will not die.” Once more, Hannah lowered the fowl to the ground.
Staring into the hen’s darting eye, Mila extended a shaking leg.
Hannah coached: “You to death. . . .”
Mila pulled back her leg.
“Why, why does the chicken have to die?” Atara insisted.
“So we won’t die for our sins. The chicken is our Kappures. It will die instead of us.”
Atara frowned. “But don’t we empty our sins into the river?”
Hannah sighed, placed the fowl back in its crate. With her apron, she dried Mila’s tears and her own. (p. 30)
From an especially difficult scene, after the girls have desecrated Sabbath by riding bicycles:
The girls appeared, gazes cast down. Zalman intoned the prayer that separates Sabbath from weekday, sacred from profane. When he finished, the room was silent. Mila started for the kitchen, for the sink full of dirty Sabbath dishes.
“Stay!” Zalman commanded.
He slid off his belt.
Mila froze in the doorway.
Atara plunged under the daybed.
Zalman pulled the bed from the wall.
Atara swerved to maintain cover.
The bed jerked right, left; Atara ducked right, left.
The bed lurched and seesawed and Zalman grew angrier. “You’re only making matters worse! Get out of there!"
Atara stilled. Zalman’s hand reached for her, his yad chazakah molded on God’s own mighty hand. He dragged the girl out, bent her over his knee, pulled down her pajamas.
Even toddlers did not crawl naked in Zalman’s house.
“My child mocks God’s word in public?”
The belt lashed the air and Atara’s buttocks. Her legs wriggled, trying to escape, but her feet did not reach the ground.
“A profaner of the Sabbath—a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath, all the congregation shall stone him!”
Mila shuddered with each blow.
“Stop, Tatta, stop!” the children sobbed.
“The rebellious son, his parents must do the stoning.”
Belt bet belt.
“I will instill fear of Heaven in my children.”
Belt. Belt. Belt.
“Zalman! Isn’t it enough?” Hannah pleaded.
“Do not intervene! I will break secularism.” Belt. “Zionism.” Belt. “Modernity.” Belt.
Atara was no longer screaming.
“Repeat after me: Never again will I transgress the Sabbath, not the Sabbath nor any of the Lord’s Holy Days.”
The girl hiccupped the commanded words.
Zalman let go of her.
She slid under the daybed. Zalman rose and took a step toward Mila, belt coiled in hand. Anger dented and swelled his forehead.
He saw the spreading stain on Mila’s white tights and the puddle around her shoes, widening. His head turned away. His raised arm dropped to his side.
He stopped in the doorway. “You have disobeyed the Lord and you have shamed me, deeply. You have shamed the family. Now the apikorsim (nonbelievers) mock: Here goes the pious Hasid whose children transgress the Sabbath." (p. 81)