Book Review: Jews in Wisconsin

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

While the endings of some novels leave readers completely satisfied, others make them feel unsettled. This usually occurs when the conclusion offers unexpected insights that change your perception of the characters. This doesn’t mean the book is bad (for example, I felt this way about Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” which is a wonderful work), but that the readers have to review the plot in light of this new understanding. This accurately describes my feeling after finishing Debra Spark’s latest novel, “Good for the Jews” (The University of Michigan Press).
An additional cause for my discomfort was due to the publicity material that arrived with the book. While I try not to read the synopsis of the plot too closely (I’d rather be surprised by the action), the advance praise noted that the work is loosely based on the biblical book of Esther. Since that didn’t seem obvious to me, even after several chapters, I felt obligated to search for the connections, resulting in a “duh” moment when I finally realized the first letters of all the characters’ names are the same as those used in the Esther story (Ellen for Esther, Mose for Mordecai, Hyman for Haman, etc.). However, without the prompting, I might not have made the association myself.
One reason for this is that the novel takes place in Wisconsin in 2005-06 and, while there may be a threat to the Jewish inhabitants of Madison, it’s not anywhere near as deadly as the one that occurred in Sushan. A second, and even better, reason is that Spark has created three-dimensional characters who stand well on their own without reference to biblical tales. The most interesting of these is the eccentric Mose Sheibaum, Ellen’s much older cousin who raised her and her sister after their parents died in a car crash. It’s Mose who teaches Ellen that “there are two categories of things in the world: what was good for the Jews and what was bad.” Not that Mose is observant, but his Jewish heritage is an integral part of his identity. What he does love is his work as an American history teacher in a progressive high school. That job is threatened when a new principal, Hyman Clark, objects to Mose’s teaching style and gives him his first bad review in 10 years at the school.
Complicating matters is the growing relationship between Ellen and Alex Decker (King Ahasuerus), who is not only several decades older than her, but the superintendent of the school system where Mose teaches. To make things even more difficult, Ellen works in the same building as Alex’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Valerie (Vashti), although their affair began after the separation. Although Valerie has a high-powered job running Madison’s Artistic Exchange, Ellen has a low-key position at a childcare business that rents space from the exchange. Mose and Ellen have a running argument about whether or not this work is beneath her. He is also unhappy about her relationship with Alex, as is Alex’s son, who bonds with Mose when the family gathers. Ellen, on the other hand, still suffers psychological aftereffects from the loss of her parents when she was 6 years old. This shows in her desire to find “a small spot, hers and safe, outside of which the world could do what the world needed to do,” although the world conspires otherwise.
A mysterious fire with tragic results affects all these people and sets the final part of the plot in motion. Yet, it’s not the suspense that intrigues as much as the fully-realized characters. Even the villain of the piece is treated with care and understanding in a chapter that shines a completely different light on him (and which ultimately makes “Good for the Jews” even more dissimilar to the biblical tale on which it’s based). In addition, the character mostly directly responsible for the fire seems less evil than confused and misdirected. It’s these sections that left me revising my impressions of the story. In Madison, life is based on shades of grey, rather than black and white. Looking back, I’m impressed at how Spark made all these people vivid and alive, even if I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about them.