Commentary Magazine


Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman

Kaaterskill Falls
by Allegra Goodman
Dial. 324 pp. $23.95

I never thought I would live to see a Jewish novel of manners. By the time modern Jews began to write novels, they no longer had manners—if by manners we mean those restraining, thoroughly integrated customs of a coherent society, the merest breach of which forces a crisis. Consider Jane Austen’s charming Emma: what great harm does she do when she quips about the dullness of Mrs. Bates in that tiresome lady’s presence? Surely, by that point in Emma, every reader is ready to accept the justice of the heroine’s observation and is probably grateful for her wit. Yet Emma’s rudeness elicits from Mr. Knightley the most stinging rebuke in her moral education, teaching her what it means to cause another person pain. Emma comes to love Mr. Knightley in the course of coming to love the good. The precipitating factor is a single tactless remark made at a picnic lunch.

Wherever in modern Jewish literature could one hope to find such a scene? Traditional Jewish society was, of course, hyperattentive to manners—except that, having conceived of them at the elevated status of religiously sanctioned deeds and misdeeds, it could hardly treat them lightly enough for literary play. The Jewish God was no Mr. Knightley. As for modern Jews, many of them did indeed lower the temperature of their faith, treating sins as social lapses, religious festivals as family gatherings. But their flight from tradition destroyed the very fabric from which a socially substantive literature could be woven.

Then, in the early decades of this century, history took the place of the avenging God. “For the time being, we have no room for a great literature,” laments a would-be novelist in a work by the American Yiddish writer Jacob Glatstein:

Do you know why? Because a great literature is a literature dealing with trifles—little pleasures, little cares, little everyday happenings, little people with little worries, little hatreds, little loves, little wives and little children, how they work and what they do in their spare time. We have never known the peace necessary to create such a literature.

Glatstein wrote this in 1939, when history was preparing the grounds for a literature of Jewish martyrs and heroes rather than ordinary human beings engaged in ordinary human tasks; the true Jewish novel, he felt, would have to wait.

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How very clever of Allegra Goodman to perceive in contemporary America the place and time in which a small group of Jews could finally be casual enough about the wrath of both God and history, yet attentive enough to the social discipline instilled by their religion, to produce a context for the novel of manners. Indeed, from her very first short story, published in this magazine when she was still a Harvard undergraduate,1 Allegra Goodman revealed a special talent for close social observation. Sidestepping the obligatory first-person maiden narrative about how my sinister family made me the sensitive person I am, she wrote confidently about educated Jews who knew something about kashrut and Israel but seemed stuck in terminal, American-style, adolescence. Giving readers the benefit of her own curiosity about the dishes being served, the books being read, the cars being driven, and especially the ideas in conversational play, she looked out at the adult Jewish world around her with a knowing, amused indulgence.

For her first novel, The Family Markowitz (1996), Goodman brought together her stories about these Jews, members of a dispersed clan who are almost too weightless, morally and socially, for the intelligence she consecrates to them. Now, in Kaaterskill Falls, she has switched gears, abandoning her old, mainly liberal cast of characters for the religiously and socially conservative world of the Orthodox.

Not just any Orthodox. The dominant presence of Kaaterskill Falls, Rav Elijah Kirshner, left Germany just before Kristallnacht in 1938, resettling with hundreds of his followers in upper Manhattan. In the 1950’s, he had urged them to use the reparations payments they were receiving from Germany to buy summer property in rural Kaaterskill, a two-hour drive from New York City. It is there that Goodman situates most of her novel, during those summering months in the countryside when families linger on the porch through long Sabbath afternoons, engaging in apparently inconsequential actions and conversations that let a novelist make much out of little.

A sociological rarity even within Orthodoxy, the “Kirshners” accept the dynastic leadership of their rabbi in the manner of Hasidic Jews, but follow traditions that are sinewy-rational, not ecstatic. Goodman bases the theology of the Kirshners on the 19th-century teachings of Samson Raphael Hirsch, who encouraged traditionalist Jews to receive a secular education—the better to withstand the challenges of modernity—while at the same time separating themselves from Jews who deviated from religious law. This tension between intellectual independence and religious discipline characterizes Rav Kirshner and permeates the novel.

As Goodman says of her protagonists, their religion is not something they can cast off; it is part of them. Their rituals are not rituals to them, but instincts. Still, since they speak English and not Yiddish, there is nothing to inhibit their interactions with the Gentile town librarian, physician, judge, and handymen, as well as with other Jews whose own religious observance happens to have lapsed to varying degrees. Thus, the Kirshner summer colony, situated among Gentiles and assorted modern Jews, experiences many of the ordinary pleasures and frictions of American small-town life, although the adjustment of the various groups to one another is hardly simple and indeed provides one of the many springs of the novel’s action.

That action is carefully dated between the summer of 1976 and the spring of 1978, when the rabbi, who has suffered a stroke, collapses and dies and the mantle of his leadership passes to his younger son Isaiah. The rabbi, who in Europe had forged a synthesis of Jewish religious observance and German culture, never lost his intellectual confidence even in the process of his uprooting. But his repressed grief for all that he was forced to abandon has frightened his two sons into giving up either one or the other side of his fused legacy. Jeremy, the elder, has become a secular professor, afraid of assuming any responsibility for a family or a community of his own. The dutiful Isaiah, substituting severity for authority, runs the community that he inherits from his father “like a Tudor court in Washington Heights.”

The main character of the novel, Elizabeth Shulman, a young mother of five, becomes the unwitting proving-ground of the changing of the guard when she wins the old Rav’s consent to open a kosher grocery store for the Kirshner summer community. The indiscretion that precipitates her crisis is different from Emma’s insult of Mrs. Bates: it offends religious discipline rather than another human being. By agreeing to cater a private birthday party with food from beyond her rabbi’s sphere of supervision, Elizabeth knows she is testing the limits: “Of course, the Rav did not forbid her to bring up food from outside Washington Heights, but he did not give her permission either.” Still, her enthusiasm wins out over prudence, provoking Isaiah, in one of his first acts as the new rabbi, to rescind the consent his father had given her.

To be sure, we are meant to understand that Isaiah’s slight to Elizabeth’s dignity is far worse than her transgression against rabbinic jurisdiction, since he is shoring up his power rather than his community or his religion. But she must accept his ruling; no more than her customers would she herself defy the rabbi’s injunction. Her adjustment to this blow constitutes the act of renunciation that defines the moral drama at the heart of Kaaterskill Falls.

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Elizabeth is both submissive and resilient. Though her dream of autonomy is crushed, her spirit toughens. Just when she is feeling most defeated, one of her Kaaterskill neighbors, a Hungarian immigrant and lapsed Orthodox Jew by the name of Andras Melish, says to her conspiratorially, “This is the United States of America. You can do whatever you damn well please.”

She stares at him. She has not heard words like these spoken to her before. No one has ever put it to her this way. As if she could act without questions and considerations. Without permission. As if she could really do what she wanted and weren’t connected to anybody, the Kehilla [community] or the children.

She bursts out laughing. All around her the party is humming and the children are dashing in and out. The coatrack is melting away under the load of coats. . . . Elizabeth just laughs. It is delightful; it is funny. Not so much the truth of what Andras has said, but the novelty of hearing it.

If the laughing heroine of Jane Austen has to be reined in by moral discipline, the overdisciplined heroine of Allegra Goodman has to be liberated by laughter. At the end of the novel, Elizabeth tells Andras it is the memory of his words that prompted her to approach her local grocer for a job—words he never dreamt she would take seriously. Elizabeth does not accept their “truth,” in the sense that she is hardly about to do whatever she damn well pleases. Yet America has put the choice into her hands, and made the consequences of choice hers to bear. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers, “Who is a hero? He who stifles his urge.” By exposing us to Elizabeth’s restlessness, Goodman has created a genuine heroine—one who stifles her urge. Judaism and the novel of manners are hereby perfectly aligned.

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Like the teaching of Rav Kirshner, this novel points in contradictory directions, inward to the specifically Jewish and outward to the embrace of America. Goodman’s description of the difficult succession from the Rav to his younger son quite brilliantly suggests how and why in contemporary Jewish life Orthodoxy can become “ultra-Orthodoxy,” how behavior becomes stricter, more defensive, more rigid. And the personal rivalry between the brothers Jeremy and Isaiah hints at why the cultural rivalry between the secular and religious branches of American Jewry is unlikely to go away. At the same time, the Shulman family, who are not only the most dynamic but the most fertile in the Kirshner community—their sixth daughter is born in the novel’s closing chapters—is Allegra Goodman’s guarantee that American Orthodoxy will not remain static.

Struck by its context, reviewers have compared this book to the fiction of others who have written about the Orthodox milieu, from Chaim Potok to Pearl Abraham. But whereas most novels in this vein are still in effect discovering modernity, with some form of “progress” supplanting some form of Jewish “constraint,” Allegra Goodman stands on the other side of acculturation, rediscovering the joy of limits. Most of her characters, whether Jewish or Gentile, must adjust to the losses they sustain, and the ones who adjust successfully are the ones who look for resolution within the status quo rather than making bids for expanding freedoms.

Yet that is not quite the whole story, either. Elizabeth Shulman’s girls are called after their Hebrew names: Chani, Malki, Ruchel, Sorah, and Brocha. But their given names, we are carefully informed, are Annette, Margot, Rowena, Sabrina, and Bernice. Three weeks after giving birth to Chaya, her sixth, Elizabeth takes the infant to register her formally in the hospital as Celia.

As if to emulate her own heroine, Allegra Goodman does something similar by introducing each of the seven sections of her novel with a lush seasonal quotation drawn mostly from English and American literature. The opulence of these invocations—from Keats, Thoreau, Nicholas Breton, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and finally the Book of Psalms—does more than signal the time of year in which the action occurs. They situate the book beyond human nature, in God’s universe, and they remind us of the proximity of the human world of Kaaterskill to the awe and grandeur of the Falls; of religion’s clumsy but noble striving to imitate God; and of the American Jewish novel’s humble place in the great chain of English literature. In this way, the novelist of manners endows self-discipline itself with a freedom, a spiritual largeness, it is not allowed to claim in its own name.

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Footnotes

1 “Variant Text,” June 1986.

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About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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